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Conclusion: The Perfect Crime

September 22, 2017

Note: Part Two of this story can be found (here). And I’ve been misspelling the name Perugia, which is actually spelled Peruggia.

 

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Why would anyone arrange the theft of a famous painting and never claim the prize? Did the plan somehow fail? Was the mastermind behind this spooked by all the publicity, or was publicity part of the scheme? Even Pablo Picasso was briefly considered a suspect.

 

Valfierno was a conman known for peddling fake paintings. He’d previously sold fakes, telling clients they were purchasing stolen originals, claiming the museums had hidden the thefts by hanging copies. It seems this maneuver blew up on Valfierno, who briefly suspended his nefarious enterprises when one of his peddled forgeries was proven to be a fake.

 

This time, to ensure this would never happen again, he planned an actual theft, and he was careful to cover his tracks so his handiwork wouldn’t be discovered. He wouldn’t go anywhere near the Mona Lisa. He’d find a dupe and pay him to do the stealing. Peruggia was that dupe. What he didn’t know was that prior to his stealing the Mona Lisa, Valfierno had commissioned six copies expertly painted on ancient panels from a Renaissance-era door, similar to the surface Leonardo used for his painting.

 

These copies had to be convincing, so the forger had to be extremely talented. Leonardo spent nearly four years painting Mona Lisa. In comparison, Michelangelo painted the Sistine Ceiling, approximately the size of a football field, in the same amount of time. Leonardo’s painting is composed of nearly four hundred translucent layers of paint, and over time she’s oxidized and now has a “greenish” tint. Presumably, the forger replicated that as well. Valfierno reportedly admitted to American reporter Karl Decker that there were many copies of the Mona Lisa floating around, and he just added to them.

 

So where was the best place to peddle these forgeries? Valfierno had a place in mind—America. The copies crossed the ocean and were sold to millionaires. Rich Americans were eager to purchase culture and status. Captains of industry were buying titles of nobility for their daughters by providing them with hefty dowries to snare cash strapped aristocratic husbands—a plot point on the popular TV show Downton Abbey.

 

Owning famous paintings was an impressive status symbol. A few years after the theft of the Mona Lisa, American railway pioneer Henry Edwards Huntington paid $640,000 for Thomas Gainsborough’s Blue Boy, the equivalent of 8.5 million dollars in 2014. Certainly the original Mona Lisa would have fetched more.

 

It’s believed by many that while the real Mona Lisa lay under Peruggia’s bed in Paris, Valfierno sold all six copies to rich Americans, probably for a million dollars each. The plan was perfectly constructed. Newspapers across the world were focused on the theft, which in this case had actually happened. All Valfierno had to do was select culture-coveting millionaires willing to buy a stolen masterpiece and keep mum about it. I believe this is what he did.

 

 

 

Paris newspaper reporting the theft

 

It’s interesting to speculate on who these purchasers might have been. J.P. Morgan? A Vanderbilt? Henry Frick? John D. Rockerfeller? I can’t help thinking about what the men purchasing these paintings thought when the real Mona Lisa was recovered.

 

If this did happen, and we’ll probably never know, this was the perfect crime. Valfierno had an ironclad alibi to explain his whereabouts at the time of the theft and was never officially implicated. Those purchasing the fakes could never broadcast the fact since they’d participated in a crime. As for Peruggia, he enjoyed his fifteen minutes of fame and was treated well by the Italian authorities, who released him from prison after only a few months. He died in France, penniless, in 1925.

 

Of course it’s possible Valfierno was lying about his involvement. Criminals have been known to aggrandize their achievements and stealing the Mona Lisa would be the crowning achievement of any con artist, but I tend to believe Valfierno. I just don’t think Peruggia smart enough to pull off such a caper.

 

 

 

 

In 1990, Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum was robbed. Among the paintings taken was Rembrandt’s only seascape, a 1633 painting called Storm on the Sea of Galilee. The painting is considered priceless and has yet to be recovered. I wonder how many millionaires, Russian oligarchs or Saudi princes paid through the nose to hide what they believe to be the original.

 

As Paul Harvey often said, “Now you know the rest of the story.”

 

 

 

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Comments

25 Comments
That would be a brilliant scheme; very little risk for a lot of reward.
By: PT Dilloway on September 22, 2017
I believe you are right on the nose! The robber Barons, as they were known, often lifted rooms, ceilings, furniture etc... from Europe and they can be found in the mansions today, ie: Newport RI. I actually have a smile on my face because he stiffed these SOB's who wanted to have a masterpiece to stare at in their cellar. I think of all the riches that were taken out of museums, homes etc... for the few who just want it. I have been to the museum in Boston and only saw the empty spaces. I am certain some S.O.B. has it in their vault. I consider them worse than the actual thieves believe or not
By: Birgit on September 22, 2017
what an amazing story! Have a great weekend!
By: Kathe W. on September 22, 2017
Quite the interesting tale. What happened to the Mona Lisa during World War II? Was she taken out of the museum and hidden so the Germans would take her? They grabbed up so many priceless works of art. Love, Janie
By: Janie Junebug on September 22, 2017
seems about right.
By: Ellen Abbott on September 22, 2017
It would have been completely perfect for him had he found a closed mouth buyer with big bucks. I think you have it figured out Stephen.
By: Jimmy on September 22, 2017
Not only are you a good Art History teacher, you're a great storyteller! Thanks - I really enjoyed this!
By: Kelly on September 22, 2017
Peruggia wasn't smart enough to know what to do with it after he stole it, so he must've been hired to do so. And Valfierno made more with the fakes than he would've with the original.
By: Alex J. Cavanaugh on September 22, 2017
What a fascinating story!!
By: The Bug on September 22, 2017
You should be a detective!!
By: fishducky on September 22, 2017
I love that twist and what a clever man he was. That really does need to be a movie.
By: Arkansas Patti on September 22, 2017
Yes, that would be an excellent scheme for a crook. Now i'm even happier to be happy with the art pieces i have, painted by friends and relatives.
By: messymimi on September 22, 2017
Thanks for sharing the rest of the story, Stephen. I had no idea and, as usual, I leave your blog more enlightened. Take care.
By: Mr. Shife on September 22, 2017
Fascinating and we may never know for sure if your theory is correct or not. But as an old friend in the news business used to say, "Never let the facts stand in the way of a good story!"
By: Catalyst on September 22, 2017
A great yarn and fascinating theory. A good movie plot eh?
By: Tom Cochrun on September 22, 2017
You leave us with lots of speculation.
By: Red kline on September 22, 2017
NOW it makes sense!
By: Val on September 22, 2017
An interesting mystery indeed! Hopefully we will one day learn of the missing "Storm on The Sea of Galilee", too. I love your stories!!
By: Marcia @ Menopausal Mom on September 22, 2017
Fascinating and very believable story. I've got two Mona Lisas under my bed.
By: Mitchell is Moving on September 23, 2017
What a great story. This could be a movie??
By: Tabor on September 23, 2017
I wonder if the owners of the fake Mona Lisas EVER show their fake copy to anyone...
By: Pixel Peeper on September 23, 2017
This has been a fascinating story. And one that I'd never read. Thanks for sharing.
By: Rick Watson on September 23, 2017
Your theory makes a lot of sense.
By: cranky on September 24, 2017
Loved it! A great mystery story/movie plot for sure.
By: scott park on September 24, 2017
Fascinating story and your speculation expertise... gives us some plausible insight to what may have occurred. What character in the movie would you like to play?
By: Daniel LaFrance on September 25, 2017

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