The world’s most famous — and valuable — painting may have been stolen by the Nazis during World War II and recovered after the war from Austrian salt mine.
But was the Mona Lisa apparently seized by the Nazis the real one, or an expert copy?
The topic of Nazi art theft is making headlines this month, almost 70 years after the end of World War II, as German authorities announced earlier in November that they had uncovered a treasure trove of more than 1,400 great works in an apartment belonging to the son of Nazi-era art dealer.
At the same time, an upcoming film, The Monuments Men, directed by, starring, and co-written by George Clooney —that gives a fictionalized account of the hunt for Nazi-stolen art — announced that it would debut at the Berlin Film Festival.
Experts estimate that Nazis seized 20 percent of Europe’s great art, including works by artists spanning centuries, from Michaelangelo to Picasso. The Nazis stole the art because they claimed it was “degenerate.”
But was Leonardo Da Vinci’s world-renowned masterpiece among the pilfered paintings?
According to a story in the U.K.’s Guardian newspaper yesterday, “it seems that Leonardo Da Vinci's Mona Lisa was among the paintings found in the Altaussee salt mine in the Austrian alps, which was converted by the Nazis into their secret stolen-art warehouse.”
However, though the Nazis were obsessive record-keepers, they made no record or document showing that they took the Mona Lisa. It wasn’t until after the war ended in 1945 that a report turned up, giving an account of Austrian espionage activities.
That report mentioned that the famous portrait of a mysterious woman — whose identity remains unknown even today — was carted on a wagon into the salt mine at Altaussee, a tiny, lakeside resort town.
The home of the Mona Lisa, The Louvre museum in Paris, only recently admitted that the painting had vanished during the war. But the museum says that the painting came back into its possession on June 16, 1945 — the same day that Allied art-hunters first removed art from the Altausee mine.
There is no way that the Mona Lisa could have made it back to Paris instantaneously. So where was it before that date?
The Louvre itself offers a solution to the puzzle?
There were a number of near-perfect copies of the Mona Lisa produced, some as early as a few years after Da Vinci’s death in 1519. The “Mona Lisa” recovered from the mine was one of those early copies, the Louvre said, duping the Nazis into believing they had the real article and saving the original Mona Lisa from their clutches.
One such copy can be seen below, on the right. The original Mona Lisa is on the left.
Because it hangs permanently in the Louvre, the sale value of the Mona Lisa is unknown. Based on its insurance appraisal, however, the painting is believed to be worth about $772 million.
The highest price ever paid for a painting at auction is $269 million, for Paul Cézanne’s “The Card Players” in 2011.