The more prominent news locally was a spectacle called “Aviation Tag Day,” a celebration of powered flight, still in its infancy, featuring New Britain born daredevil C.K. Hamilton — known for his “dangerous dives” and “spectacular crashes” (also for sometimes flying drunk as legend has it). The event drew thousands of people to Bradley Park on Meriden’s west side and led the front page of the Meriden Daily Journal on Sept. 4, 1911.
But another headline — “Great search is being made for Mona Lisa” — would have undoubtedly captured readers’ attention as well. It caught my eye among the many interesting historical front pages in a gallery marking the R-J’s 150th anniversary this year. In fact, the article reflects precisely why the “Mona Lisa” isn’t just any other priceless masterpiece, but also the world’s most famous painting.
The “Mona Lisa” vanished from the walls of the Louvre two weeks earlier, on Aug. 22, 1911. It wouldn’t be recovered for another two years, during which time even minor developments in the case were chronicled in the press as the mystery surrounding the great heist became a subject of worldwide fascination.
At one point French detectives, widely criticized for bungling the investigation, arrested the young artist Pablo Picasso and poet and critic Guillaume Apollinaire over alleged ties to a previous theft of sculptures from the Louvre. They were released a short time later.
The article in the Meriden Daily Journal (a predecessor to this newspaper) states that “Secret Service operatives and agents of the treasury are today combing” large American cities “on a clue from abroad” that the painting had been smuggled across the Canadian border.
The clue turned out to be false, though such reports only intensified interest in the case. Some at the time believed American tycoon and art collector J.P Morgan might even have commissioned the theft, according to historians.
The culprit was actually Italian construction worker Vincenzo Perugia, most likely acting with help from his two brothers.
In December 1913, Perugia was arrested after trying to broker a sale of the painting to the Uffizi gallery in Florence, having previously kept it hidden in the false bottom of a trunk in his room in a Parisian boarding house.
Perugia pulled off the heist by hiding overnight in a storage closet in the Louvre, removing the painting from its frame the next morning and leaving the museum with the “Mona Lisa” hidden under his smock.
He said he wanted to return the Da Vinci masterpiece to Italy, denying claims by the prosecution that he had also tried to sell the painting in England.
The “Mona Lisa” was returned to the Louvre amid great fanfare while after a brief trial in Italy Perugia was convicted and sentenced to just eight months in prison.
The story was quickly knocked off the front pages by the onset of World War I.
But not before making the “Mona Lisa” the world’s most famous work of art.
To view this and other historic front pages marking the Record-Journal’s 150 anniversary go to http://bit.ly/2malpZv .
Reach Managing Editor Eric Cotton at (203) 317-2344 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @ecotton3.