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Review: 'Mona Lisa' theft examined in 'The Crimes of Paris' by Dorothy and Thomas Hoobler, 'Vanished Smile' by R. A. Scotti

The authors of two new books hang their stories on the same hook: the 1911 theft from the Louvre of the Mona Lisa. From there, however, the books diverge greatly.

In The Crimes of Paris, the husband-and-wife writing team of Dorothy and Thomas Hoobler use the theft as the starting point for their rather dry study of the first days of forensics as a tool for solving crimes. Their focus is France, as Paris had become the Mecca of police work by the turn of the 20th century.

In Vanished Smile, R. A. Scotti tells a more idiosyncratic story, a charming one that delves deeper into the mystique of the Mona Lisa herself. Both books make plain, however, that the theft itself is far less interesting than the world moment in which it occurred: the Belle Époque, those glory days between the Franco-Prussian War and World War I.

Painted by Leonardo da Vinci in the 16th century, the Mona Lisa La Joconde to the French, La Gioconda to the Italians — would become the world's most famous painting after being stolen from the Louvre on Aug. 21, 1911. It was pre-iconic before that, appraised at a value far below other paintings surrounding it in the Salon Carée.

Yet it was small (21 by 30 inches) and portable. Sidebars on Louvre security, or the lack thereof, will make the reader wince, just as the French winced when these were exposed in the day's very active press.

So it was that a former Louvre employee lifted the painting off the wall and walked away with it one Monday morning. Owing to the lax security, it was days before Louvre officials could even declare the portrait missing. Soon the scandal would shock Paris, indeed the entire world, and the shock waves would ripple for the two-plus years the painting remained "lost."

Even now, the crime is cloaked in mystery. Did the confessed thief, a dim-witted Italian expat seeking glory by returning his patrimony to its rightful place in Florence, act alone? Was there an international ring of art forgers behind the thievery, seeking to sting such big-money Americans as J.P. Morgan? Or was this supposed scheme the invention of a headline-hungry reporter? It is likely we will never know what happened, and neither the Hooblers nor Scotti claim to have solved the crime.

What we do know are the names of two men implicated in the theft: the French writer Guillaume Apollinaire and a Spanish friend of his, who, standing all of 5 feet 3, was nonetheless already looking down upon the art world with disdain.

This was Pablo Picasso. (And amateur art historians and sleuths will want to compare some of Picasso's portraits to a certain Iberian statuette stolen from the Louvre in 1907.) Apollinaire would do time for his (rather innocent) role in the theft, and the image of a humbled Picasso being brought in for questioning is a moving one.

Indeed, the story of the artists' involvement in l'affaire Mona Lisa is far and away the most intriguing aspect of the crime. It is told in greater, albeit breezier detail in Vanished Smile, which focuses more on the art worlds, both Renaissance and modern; though the Hooblers use the theft to frame their narrative, it is given relatively few pages within it.

While both books do an admirable job "situating" the theft, the Hooblers do so by undertaking a survey of pre-modern Parisian crime. Their disquisition on crime and its detection may try the patience of those more interested in the disappearance of da Vinci's masterwork.

For such readers, 35 pages on the man who advocated for the precise measurement of every criminal — in 11 key spots, no less — as a means of identifying and tracking recidivists in the days before fingerprinting, or 40 pages on the first gang to employ the getaway car, may be a slog. On the other hand, those readers interested in the state of Belle Époque crime and the birth of modern forensic science will find what they're looking for in The Crimes of Paris.

Readers hankering for more of da Vinci and his enigmatic sitter, whose smooth smile has been bewitching men for centuries — both Louis XIV and Napoleon had her picture hung in their "private" rooms, and she is the sole work at the Louvre who receives her own mail — should reach instead for Scotti's Vanished Smile.

James Reese's latest book is "The Dracula Dossier."

The Crimes of Paris

By Dorothy and Thomas Hoobler

Little, Brown and Co., 384 pages, $24.99

Vanished Smile

By R. A. Scotti

Alfred A. Knopf, 256 pages, $24.95

Review: 'Mona Lisa' theft examined in 'The Crimes of Paris' by Dorothy and Thomas Hoobler, 'Vanished Smile' by R. A. Scotti 05/29/09 [Last modified: Friday, May 29, 2009 11:45am]

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