Guillaume Apollinaire was an important (at least in France) poet and critic of the early 20th century. He was a fan of modern art and is credited with coining the word surrealism. To the French police he was important for another reason. On September 7, 1911, they arrested and jailed him on suspicion monaof aiding and abetting the theft of the Mona Lisa and a number of Egyptian statuettes from the Louvre. It didn’t help his case that he had once called for the Louvre to be burnt down.

The strange case began early on a Monday morning. Before the Louvre was opened for visitors,the Mona Lisa was stolen by a thief who acted quickly when no guards were around. The theft wasn’t reported until Tuesday; guards who noticed that the painting was missing assumed it had been removed to be photographed. Once museum officials realized the truth, however, all hell broke loose. The Louvre went into lock-down. Police arrived to question the staff, re-enact the crime and dust for fingerprints, a newfangled detection technique. The French border was sealed, departing ships and trains thoroughly searched.

By the time the museum re-opened nine days later, the theft was on the front page of newspapers around the world. Tips poured in from amateur sleuths, clairvoyants and your everyday would-be experts. Thousands of people lined up at the Louvre just to see the empty spot where the painting once hung. More it seems than ever viewed the painting itself which was not widely known outside the art world until it was stolen (Nat King Cole had not sung about it). Giving the whole situation a Kafkaesque touch, Franz Kafka was among those who came to view the empty space.

The plot thickened (as plots will) when a mystery man called the Paris-Journal, which was offering a reward for information about the crime. The man showed up at the newspaper’s offices with a small statue, one of several that he claimed to have stolen from the Louvre. The anonymous thief turned out to be a bisexual con man named Honoré Joseph Géry Pieret who had a questionable relationship with Apollinaire. Pieret implicated Apollinaire and he was arrested.

Under pressure, Apollinaire, admitted that Pieret had sold the pilfered works to his friend Pablo Picasso. Thinking they might have discovered a dandy crime ring, police arrested Picasso as well. Although Picasso admitted buying the objects, prosecutors couldn’t build a case that either he or Apollinaire had stolen them, much less the Mona Lisa, and both of them went free.

And what happened to the Mona Lisa? Conspiracy theorists tell us it was never found, that museum officials had to hire Leonardo DaVinci to paint a replacement. “How about a real smile this time,” they suggested.

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