Dylan Ratigan Show   |  August 17, 2011

Why was the Mona Lisa stolen?

Filmmaker Joe Medeiros talks reflects on the 100th anniversary of the theft of the famous painting.

Share This:

This content comes from Closed Captioning that was broadcast along with this program.

>>> mona lisa is simply the most important painting in the world.

>> this is the story of the greatest little known art theft in history.

>>> i may not know this, but 100 years ago -- i didn't know this -- somebody stole the most famous painting in the history of the world . my next guest spent 34 years of his life trying to figure out why someone would steal the " mona lisa " and keep it for two years in their bedroom. joining us joe maderos, currently working on "the misting piece" his piece on have i chenzo ' perugia 's theft.

>> my italian grandmother would be horrified. what led you to do this, and more importantly, how did this guy steal the painting? and why did he bring it back?

>> what do you want to know first?

>> what we need to know most.

>> vicenzo had worked at the louvre . he was brought there to help protect the paintings by cover them with glass. he worked for the company that did the glazing -- there was a lot of vandalism, so the louvre said we'll cover them with glass. he was brought in. they covered 1600 plasterpieces with glass. he was an italian immigrant living in paris, and you know how immigrants are often treated --

>> poorly.

>> -- he's looking at this art and wondering how did it get into louvre .

>> i'm in france, why is italian art here? i don't even like these french people .

>> that is correct --

>> not me, him.

>> right. he asked his french superior, who was kind of like, he smirked. he didn't give him the answer. so one day he's looking through a book and sees that napoleon had raided all the art and took it from italy when he conquered the country.

>> 1,000 years before?

>> a hundred years earlier.

>> right, of course. so perugia , says all this is stolen, if i return one of these to italy .

>> which gives him justification to the psychological framing, which he essentially believes he's getting it back. napoleon took it, and i'm getting it back.

>> we all know that it's not a crime to steal something that's stolen.

>> is that true?

>> i don't know. so vicenzo keeps -- how does he get it out of the building? or do we have to watch the movie?

>> i'll tell you. it's in a lot of books. it's fairly simple. he walked in on a monday dressed as a workman, when the museum was closed. there isn't the security that i had to get into this building like this building.

>> well, this is nbc news --

>> not much to steal here, i guess. he walks into the louvre , and he basically takes the mona lisa off the wall, into a staircase, removes it from the frame. it's a piece of wood, 21 by 30 inches take off his smock, wrapping it around.

>> walk out with a board.

>> gets on a bus -- gets on the wrong bus, has to jump eve --

>> that might have thrown them off his tail.

>> i don't think he was that smart.

>> speaking of not being that smart. after stealing the board and a blanket that happened to be a mona lisa on a monday, two years later he brings it back?

>> no, no, he brings it to italy . two years later he tries to get it to florence .

>> right.

>> what's going on there? this is the completion of the return.

>> he wanted to return it for patriotic reasons, he said, so he got in touch with an article dealer in florence name alfredo jetty, and alfredo looked at this, and goes, the guy wants to sell me the mona lisa . because perugia had written a couple other letters, so yetty goes, well, if i respond to this, who knows, maybe it's the real thing, and what did he have to lose. so he wrote him, perugia shows up, he hands it over to the gallery, the great art museum in florence , and they said thank you very much, and you're under arrest.

>> let's look at a clip.

>> i was hoping she could tell me her father's mott i have, but she wanted that answer. i told her i would try to find it. [ speaking foreign language ]

>> that's all she wants.

>> the truth.

>> that is his daughter?

>> his one and only child.

>> what did she think about her father's escapades?

>> it's an interesting story. i first found out about the theft when i was 25 years old, which was a long time ago, 1976 , i read a sentence in a book about da vinci , that perugia had stolen the painting.

>> it took me until i was 39, if it makes you feel better.

>> that's okay. ipted to write a screenplay about it. there was a low of information about the theft, very little about him. to do is a screenplay i would have had to 345ik things up. and i'm from philadelphia, what do i know about a dead italian?

>> more than some me.

>> when i tried to make up stuff, it sounded. 30 years later, i'm googles his name and up pops an article about his daughter. i figured she could give me the truth about her father. it turns out she knew less than i did, because he died when she was a year and a half old. so the film becomes my quest to find the truth not only for my curiosity, but to sort of close the book for her.

>> the perception of the honorable narrative of the thief, how did the italian people look at it? did anybody else see it his way? was he a cult hero , like d.b. cooper is in america? how was he perceived in the general population ?

>> no, no, it was a huge story.

>> did they like it that he did this?

>> he became somewhat of a hero, somewhat of a folk hero , but people discounted his reason for doing it. you know, it was a tense political time between france -- italy was on the side of germany at that point right before world war i, so the italian government doesn't want too trumpet up this nationalistic feeling, and so did the french, to their credit. they just wanted to --

>> calm the crowd, get the mona lisa back and sweep it under the rug.

>> move on.

>> and the one who championed his cause was actually a psychiatrist, because his defense team, like they do today, bring in the psychiatrist, he's crazy. in our research we found out maybe he wasn't as mentally --

>> the good tricks never die.

>> no, they do.

>> joe medeiros, the film "the missing piece." i think you probably have a decent sense of what it's about. i'm certainly intrigued. hopefully interesting for you as well.