In September 1904, the young Cubist painter Pablo Picasso attended the opening of a new room at the Louvre that featured Iberian art from the museum’s permanent collection. As a proud Spaniard, Picasso was thrilled by the ancient art he saw on display, sculptures that had an air of the simplified abstraction of Cycladic figurines and yet were millennia old, and were the original, most authentic art of Picasso’s homeland.

The statues were not artistic masterpieces, and yet they would be stolen. It was noted at the time of their disappearance that they were of no real financial value, roughly carved and of basic materials (primarily limestone), nor were they particularly rare.

These statuettes would, however, prove of central importance to the evolution of modern art. A glance at the works in question confirms what Picasso would glean from his admiration of them—they might as well be Picasso sculptures, with their amorphous form suggestive of a human head, grotesquely and beautifully broken into general shapes that implied eyes, braided hair, and lips.

The ancient Iberian busts stolen from the Louvre.

Picasso would use these Iberian statuettes as models for the faces of the prostitutes he painted in his 1907 masterpiece, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, considered by many to be the first great abstract painting and the foundation of modernist painting.

But his visit to the Louvre that day, just a year after he had moved from Spain to Paris, was also intimately linked to the theft of the Mona Lisa. For in 1911 Pablo Picasso and his close friend, the Polish-born poet and art critic Guillaume Apollinaire, were brought in for questioning by the Paris police on suspicion of having stolen Da Vinci’s masterpiece.

Picasso’s 1907 Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, thought to be partially inspired by the Louvre statuettes.

In fact, they were innocent of the Mona Lisa theft, but they were terrified nonetheless—so much so that Picasso, under oath, denied having ever before seen Apollinaire. Picasso and Apollinaire were petrified of the police not because they had stolen the Mona Lisa but because they possessed something else stolen from the Louvre: that pair of ancient Iberian statue heads they had first laid eyes on in September 1904.

Affaires of the Heart

What would become known as the affaire des statuettes began with a Belgian con man by the name of Joseph-Honoré Géry Pieret. Géry Pieret was working as a personal secretary for Apollinaire at the time. He was also a compulsive art thief, although the fact that art was his target may have been circumstantial rather than a primary motivator. Whatever his motives, he took to stealing from the Louvre regularly.

In the first decade of the 20th century, removing objects from the Louvre was not particularly difficult to do. Although alarms had been invented, they were not widely used until after World War I, and the objects on display at the museum were not protected by alarms. Nor, in many cases, were they even fixed in place. Most statues were simply laid out on tables, without locks or glass vitrines to discourage curious hands.

Guillaume Apollinaire, photographed by Picasso in his Paris studio in 1910.

Although the enormous museum—once the French royal residence in Paris until Napoleon and his art adviser, Dominique-Vivant Denon, converted it into a public art museum—had more than 400 rooms displaying art, it only employed around 200 guards. Objects disappeared from the Louvre with enough regularity that Parisian newspapers frequently commented on the poor security and, on more than one occasion, lamented in print that one day all of this lax security would lead to the disappearance of the Mona Lisa.

Whatever his motives, Joseph-Honoré Géry Pieret took to stealing from the Louvre regularly.

The Mona Lisa went missing on August 11, 1911, a day that the museum was closed to the public. It was stolen by Vincenzo Peruggia, a handyman working for a firm hired by the Louvre to build protective cases over works that the administration worried might be attacked by anarchists. Peruggia hid in a closet overnight, waited for the footfalls of the security guard on his rounds to fade away, and then snuck out, removing the painting and its cumbersome frame from the wall.

Then he brought it to a service stairwell, where he removed the panel painting from the frame, wrapped it in a sheet, and headed for the exit. But the door to the courtyard—and his escape—was locked. He tried to remove the door from its hinges without success. Footsteps approached. They were of a janitor who didn’t seem all that fazed to find someone in a Louvre worker’s uniform locked inside overnight. He unlocked the door and off Peruggia went, Mona Lisa and all.

Letter to the Editors

On August 29, 1911, under a pseudonym, Géry Pieret wrote to the prominent newspaper Paris-Journal—which had offered a cash reward of 50,000 francs, no questions asked, to anyone who could bring them the Mona Lisa—that it was in March 1907 that “I first penetrated the Louvre.” His letter to the newspaper read:

I was a young man with time to kill and no money to spend.... It was around 13:00. I found myself in the gallery of Asian antiquities. A single guard sat there, motionless....

It was then that it came to me just how easy it would be to pick up any object of a modest size and take it away with me. I was wearing a boxy overcoat, and my slender body meant that I could add a bit to my dimensions without attracting the attention of the guards, who have no strong grasp of proper anatomy, anyway. At that moment I was in a small room, a closet really just two meters by two, in the Gallery of Phoenician Antiquities.

As I found myself absolutely alone, and I heard no sounds of any sort, I took my time, examining about fifty sculpted heads that were displayed there. I chose one of a woman with, if I recall correctly, twisted, conical forms on each side. I put the statue under my arm, pulled up the collar of my overcoat with my left hand, and calmly walked towards the exit, asking a guard, who still sat motionless, for directions en route.

Picasso in his studio in the summer of 1908.

I sold the statue to a Parisian painter friend of mine. He gave me a little money—fifty francs, I think, which I lost that same night playing billiards. “What do I care?” I said to myself after losing the money. “All of Phoenicia is there for the taking.” …

Then I emigrated. I made a little money in Mexico, and decided that it was time to return to France and start my own art collection for a minimal expenditure....

Now, one of my colleagues has spoiled all my plans for a collection by making this hullabaloo in the paintings department [by stealing the Mona Lisa]! I truly regret this, for there is a strange, almost voluptuous charm about stealing works of art, and I will probably have to wait years before resuming my activities.

Why would Géry Pieret boast to a major newspaper of his illegal exploits? Whatever the reason, he chose to approach Paris-Journal only a week after the Mona Lisa disappeared, an event that prompted international headlines and outrage.

Objects disappeared from the Louvre with enough regularity that Parisian newspapers lamented in print that one day all of this lax security would lead to the disappearance of the Mona Lisa.

Three important newspapers, Paris-Journal, Le Matin, and L’Intransigeant, attacked the Louvre for its dreadful security in a series of vituperative articles. “Unimaginable,” screamed the headlines. How could the museum permit such a masterpiece to be stolen?, they asked. Was the Louvre indeed so poorly protected as to have been the victim of multiple thefts over the course of years?

The answer was yes. A number of French newspapers published articles on various “disappearances” from the Louvre in 1906, including an Egyptian statuette and an Iberian bronze statue of a female that had only been acquired by the museum a few months prior, which may or may not have been the work of Géry Pieret. But while Géry Pieret was seeking notoriety for his own activities, he inadvertently implicated two celebrity artists in the theft of the Mona Lisa: Picasso and Apollinaire.

It would turn out that the painter Géry Pieret sold two of the busts to was Picasso, who hid them in his sock drawer.

The flush of press brought on first by the Mona Lisa theft and now by the uproar caused by the publication of Pieret’s letters frightened Picasso and Apollinaire. Both men at the very least knew that they were in possession of stolen art, and most likely, the two had both commissioned the theft and were involved in it.

The front-page headline of the August 23, 1911, Paris newspaper Excelsior: The Louvre has lost the Mona Lisa.

The pressure was so great that Apollinaire made the dangerous and perhaps foolish decision to personally return the two statue heads that had been stolen in 1907. He left them at the Paris-Journal office on September 5, 1911. The next day the newspaper published an article about their return, featuring photographs of the statuettes along with the excuse provided by the unnamed owner: “One would not think that such unrefined objects could have been part of the Louvre collection … seduced by the relatively low price, he purchased them.”

The efforts of the paper to protect the identity of the seemingly honorable owner did not stand up to the police’s demand for information, desperate as they were in their fruitless search for the far more important Mona Lisa. Unfortunately for the owner, he was too much of a celebrity to go unrecognized.

It is unclear why it fell to the celebrated art critic and poet to return the statues in person, for it was Picasso who had possession of the stolen sculptures. Of the two, Picasso was the more domineering, the alpha dog in the relationship, and so the frightened Picasso might well have bullied Apollinaire into delivering the statues alone. Apollinaire did know the editors of Paris-Journal through his work as a journalist, and so he might have thought that he could rely on their discretion and assistance.

On September 7, Apollinaire was arrested under several accusations, half of them true. He was accused of harboring the thief of the Iberian statue heads, of which he was guilty. But the Paris police, grasping for a positive headline to offset the lack of progress on the Mona Lisa case, threw in another charge that was based on no apparent evidence: that Apollinaire was also involved in the theft of the Mona Lisa.

The police needed a scapegoat, and Apollinaire was an ideal choice, in that he appealed to the xenophobia of the French at the time. He was born in 1880 in Rome as Wilhelm Albert Włodzimierz Apolinary Kostrowicki, his mother a member of the minor nobility of Poland. His father was most likely Francesco Flugi d’Aspermont, a Swiss-Italian aristocrat, who left soon after Apollinaire’s birth.

Apollinaire grew up speaking French and lived most of his life in Paris, but he was a foreigner and, in a country where the madness of the Dreyfus affair was a fresh memory, he was an ideal scapegoat. Right-wing publications attacked him—his biggest crime from their perspective was not having been born French.

When Apollinaire was questioned, he was compelled to reveal the link to Picasso in the Louvre theft, which led to Picasso being questioned. The two were interrogated separately, and neither represented himself with honor. Picasso was so frightened, particularly of being deported back to Spain, that he denied having ever seen Apollinaire, at that time his closest friend.

Apollinaire spent a total of six days in custody, while his influential friends, including the lawyer and friend from his school days, Toussaint Luca, helped to secure his freedom. Paris-Journal wrote on September 13 that Apollinaire’s “bad dream is ended,” and he was released.

While Géry Pieret was seeking notoriety, he inadvertently implicated two celebrity artists in the theft of the Mona Lisa.

A common misconception about art crime is that most thefts are commissioned by criminal collectors. In reality, only a negligible percentage of known art thefts throughout history have been commissioned by a collector—that is to say, someone who desired an artwork for his private personal collection and hired a thief to steal it for him.

The mug shot of Vincenzo Peruggia, the true Mona Lisa thief.

But in the affaire des statuettes we seem to have one of the few exceptions to the rule that collectors do not commission art thefts. The criminal collector was Picasso.

After Apollinaire was cleared of involvement in the Mona Lisa theft, the air cleared, and both he and Picasso were left with a still greater celebrity, albeit for the dubious achievement of having been wrongfully accused of the most famous heist in history, while at the same time being guilty of an only slightly less objectionable series of thefts from the same museum.

Apollinaire’s involvement in the affaire des statuettes has a sad coda, in that it may have led, albeit indirectly, to his premature death. Apollinaire loved France and was devastated by the xenophobic accusations and attacks against him in 1911.

Three years later, fate would present him with an opportunity to prove his loyalty to his adopted country. At the start of World War I, Apollinaire volunteered for the French Army. He died from influenza while hospitalized for a head wound received in action.

Géry Pieret moved abroad, to San Diego, where he became a cowboy.

The Iberian statuettes are now back at the Louvre. They played a key role in the history of art, thanks to their cameo in the birth of modernism in Picasso’s 1907 Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. And they will forever be remembered for the supporting role they played in the story of the theft of the Mona Lisa.

Noah Charney is a historian and the author of The Art Thief. His latest book, The Thefts of the Mona Lisa, is out now