How to Steal the Mona Lisa: and Six Other World-Famous Treasures
US: Mar 2016
Vincenzo Peruggia successfully stole Leonardo da Vinci’s iconic Mona Lisa painting from the Louvre in 1911. It was not a grand scale operation. Back in the early 20th century, museum directors and curators had no reason to believe that they needed any tight security. Peruggia, working for the Louvre at the time, literally walked out of the museum with the painting one day, keeping it to himself for at least two years.
The theft not only bolstered the portrait’s popularity, it also exposed the security weaknesses of museums and gave the authorities the opportunity to rethink old habits of criminal profiling. In other words, What kind of person steals a da Vinci original? Who should we be looking for?
According to author Taylor Bayouth, those security weaknesses are still out there, ripe for exploitation. His book, How to Steal the Mona Lisa, is just that—a how-to book. He doesn’t delve into any economic or moral reasons for why these things can and should be stolen. He doesn’t sit back to discuss why we, as a culture, love to watch the perfect heists unfold in pieces of fiction like Ocean’s Eleven and Mission: Impossible. He just takes your hand and walks you through all the steps of stealing valuable art.
Right off the bat, he urges you to pay for this book in cash and to begin reading it in a very private place. I myself have been seen too many times in public with this book, so I’m definitely out of the running.
A bulk of the book outlines how to carry out seven thefts in great detail. At the start, Bayouth gives general pointers on how to disguise yourself, how to pick a lock, how to properly use a grappling hook, and how to choose your accomplices wisely. The end of the book is devoted to finding buyers, laundering money, and possibly leaving the grid with a new identity safely intact. In between, you learn all you ostensibly need to know about stealing the Hope Diamond from the Smithsonian, the Mona Lisa from The Louvre, the Archaeopteryx Lithographica fossil from the Naturkunde, Auguste Rodin’s The Thinker from the Musée Rodin, Tutankhamun’s Golden Death Mask from the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities, Queen Elizabeth’s crown from the Tower of London, and da Vinci’s Codex Leicester from the vehicle that transports it between museums.
This may all seem rather far-fetched, but Bayouth seems to think that you, the mild-mannered reader, can pull it off. He has confidence in you. He’s done all the research for you. You just need to follow each step very carefully, and dress appropriately.
Bayouth has gained a lot of edgy knowledge during his research for this book. He took the time to reach out to people who have firsthand knowledge of the places you are instructed to break into, most of which are acknowledged at the end of the book (some of his sources are, understandably, left anonymous). You may indeed be tempted.
Still, some of these proposed heists are just downright crazy. The Codex Leicester, for example, travels by way of an armored car from one museum to another. Bayouth recommends renting a decoy armored car and a truck large enough to smuggle away the real armored car. How does one accomplish that, you ask? Well, all one needs to do is have a bright strobe light emit a flash from the inside of a different car to blind the surrounding traffic for a good five seconds, have a “bump” car push the armored car into the back of the big rig truck during the moment of confusion, and have the decoy takes its place all while you and your crew are wearing protective eyewear. Not only have you stolen valuable property, but should you get caught, the authorities can probably nail you for kidnapping as well.
Bayouth says that if you carry out everything perfectly, this driver can be none the wiser as to whom you and your crew really are. Then again, assuring the reader that they need to carry things out perfectly is a nice way for the author to avoid making any guarantees. If you try to get your hands on da Vinci’s legendary Codex Leicester manuscript in the fashion described above and it doesn’t quite work out, then you obviously missed a step. Better check the wattage of your strobe bulb ahead of time, slick.
Presumably, the guy with the strobe light will ditch the light in a trash can and hop in the sturdy vehicle and all four players will meet up in a warehouse someplace where the armored car was taken. We trust the guy transporting the Codex Leicester will be let off safely, somewhere.
To steal Queen Elizabeth’s crown all you have to do is disguise yourself as the jeweler Harry Collins, telephone the palace to say that you need to perform some repairs on Her Majesty’s headgear, and simply walk away with it after it’s handed to you. Part of the plan in snagging King Tut’s mask is to hide in a broom closet for 48 hours. To get your hands on The Thinker, steal a helicopter and scramble the signals coming and going through the nearby communications tower. Nothing to it.
What Bayouth never comes close to addressing is how, with the publication of this book, everyone’s cover is now blown. All of the security shortcomings have been exposed and consequently all of the loopholes can be tied up neatly. As of this writing, the Mona Lisa portrait is valued at $760 million and How to Steal the Mona Lisa is retailing for $15. If I held any kind of clout at the Louvre, I would encourage such an investment. That way, the entire staff will sense the same red flag when there is news of a naked stripper threatening to jump to her death just across the street from the museum (Bayouth’s bulletproof idea for a diversion).
When this book explicitly states that a certain string of crummy motels located near the Potomac river are the last place the D.C. authorities are going to think of searching when hunting down the thief who made off with the Hope Diamond, it just might become their new go-to spot. That broom closet at the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities is now an open secret, at best. As far as that stunt of being British jeweler Harry Collins for a day goes, there are plenty of ways for Her Majesty and her staff to snuff that one out, thanks to this book. Buckingham Palace’s security is surely already in on the joke.
The back of How to Steal the Mona Lisa instructs the book store clerk to file it under “Humor/Reference”. Alas, I didn’t laugh once while reading this book (although a few passage incurred a raised eyebrow, here and there). In fact, some of the passages were downright dry. Hacking the security code to the Smithsonian National History Museum and navigating the buildings ducts in particular make for tedious reading. But could it be that Bayouth is shooting for something far more absurd with the whole thing? “Look at you! You’re reading a book that instructs you on how to steal a helicopter! Are you really going to try that?”
Coming from a different angle, this book could be interpreted as a wake-up call to all the museums of the world that their most valuable artifacts and works of art aren’t exactly under such a strong lock and key. In that case, the “Reference” tag seems more accurate. It’s definitely more informative than entertaining, which is curiously the opposite reason for why we like to watch movies with high stakes heists in the first place.
It could just be that normal life is as boring as we all perceived it to be. If that’s the case, then there’s nothing to lose by hijacking a French helicopter.
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