When the greatest painting in the world vanished...
It is funny to see the name of William Conrad as director of this episode of G.E.TRUE. Conrad is best recalled as the original "Matt Dillon" on radio, or the television detective series hero "Cannon", or the narrator on the "Rocky" and "Bullwinkle" cartoons, or in movies like THE KILLERS, BODY AND SOUL, and JOHNNY CONCHO. Yet Conrad had a sizable number of credits as a director. When I saw this program in the 1960s I was not aware of his work (it was well produced and directed and acted), but I was aware of it being one of the few times that the "theft of century" was subject of a dramatic presentation.
Most people consider that Leonardo da Vinci's La Gioconda or The Mona Lisa is the most famous painting of all time. I was lucky enough to see it at the Louvre in 1993, and it is a moving experience to be able to look at that lady with the interesting smile. It has been suggested that the smile is that of a woman after a happy sexual encounter, but that is just an opinion I have read.
The painting has been in France since 1519. This surprises most people, who would have thought it was (or should have been) in Italy - after all, da Vinci was an Italian (Florentine) painter. However, Leonardo was invited to live in France by King Francois I as a guest and as resident artist - engineer. He died there in 1519. Among his belongings that he left to King Francois was the painting (which he had been continuously improving while he was active). So it ended up in the royal collection. However, just like the Elgin Marbles are a bone of contention between Greece and Britain to this day, many Italians would like the French to give the Mona Lisa back to them. It's unlikely this would happen. But it nearly did happen in 1911.
The episode deals with the theft of the painting by Vincenzio Perugia, a poor art restorer and painter, who was hired to steal the picture and kept it for two years, much to the mystery of the general public. Perugia was able (because he was working as an art restorer) to have access to the Louvre, and to remove the painting in a cylindrical container without any attention. The picture was not even noticed to be missing for a few days - incredible as that may seem.
In the show Vito Scotti is Perugia (interestingly enough, he had played the same role on an episode of YOU ARE THERE about six or seven years earlier). He is hired to do this by Leon Askin, a conman who is arranging the sale of about nine copies of the Mona Lisa to various private collectors - all of whom would keep the "original" in their separate vaults!. Scotti, who needs the money, agrees to do so. But after the theft, Askin proposes that Scotti return the original - and Scotti refuses to do so. He seems fixated on the painting, which he looks at constantly. Askin gives up on him after awhile - he has sold the fakes, so he really does not care what happens to the painting.
The French investigation is headed by their most famous detective, Alphonse Bertillion (Marcel Hillaire). He is shown to be on top of the search, but in reality Bertillion had few details to work with. Since the painting was missing for a few days there was no way of figuring out who was the last person to have access to it - although it was missing because it was supposed to get a cleaning (which required a restorer - hence Perugia's access to it).
For two years Bertillion searched for it. The episode really concentrated on Scotti, and his eventual motives. Historically, Bertillion was "at sea" - a specialist in the measurement and identification system called anthropomage that he used successfully against criminals from the 1880s to about 1906 (when...bitterly...he added a little fingerprinting) he was frequently given assignments he had no concept about. In 1894 he would give a windy and impossible handwriting analysis of the "bordereau" document in the Dreyfus treason trial - insisting Dreyfus had written it. Dreyfus didn't (it was the work of a Major Waldin Esterhazy, the actual traitor), but the military tribunal and it's supporters "believed" Bertillion. In this case (although he rarely examined crime scenes or searched for stolen property) he was given the job of finding the world's greatest painting.*
[*In his blundering, Bertillion would arrest two "suspects" among others: a Spanish art student named Pablo Picasso, and a poet of Greek and French ancestry, Guillaume Apollonaire!]
It simplified matters, in the end, that Perugia confessed. He did so in Genoa in 1913. He turned the painting over to the authorities. The episode explains that Perugia's fascination with the painting was due to it's reminding him of a young woman he was going to marry who died. Perhaps it did, but he also mentioned that it seemed fitting that the painting should stay in it's native Italy and not France.
France and Italy, while not hostile to each other, were members of rival defense systems in 1911 - 1913, so there were small areas of friction. But the Italian Government decided to return the picture to France. On the other hand, they decided to try Perugia. He was convicted of theft, but given one year in prison. Popular opinion in Italy thought him a hero for briefly returning the painting to it's native country.
For Bertillion, it was like a last success to end his odd career on. He died in 1914. About two weeks after his death the Surete formally ended it's reliance on "anthropomage" and gave most of it's identification efforts over to fingerprinting!
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