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GUY RAZ, host: If you've ever been to the Louvre in Paris, you may have wondered why one painting there, the "Mona Lisa," is the most famous in the world. Why that one? Well, it has to do in large part to something that happened almost 100 years ago.

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RAZ: August 21, 1911, about 7 a.m. on a quiet, humid Paris morning.

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RAZ: And if you were standing on a side street outside the Louvre, you might have seen three men hurrying out.

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JAMES ZUG: It was sort of back to the working week. And Sunday nights was a big social night in Paris at the time, so a lot of people were hungover on Monday morning.

RAZ: That's James Zug. He's a writer and historian. He says there weren't very many people around to notice that one of those three men had a bulge, a large bulge in his jacket.

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RAZ: They had stolen the "Mona Lisa."

DOROTHY HOOBLER: OK. Well, I'm Dorothy Hoobler. I write books with my husband.

TOM HOOBLER: We've done that. And this is Tom Hoobler. We've written almost 100 books together.

RAZ: Dorothy and Tom tell this story in a book "The Crimes of Paris." Now, that Monday morning was a holiday, so the Louvre was closed. Only cleaning staff were allowed in.

HOOBLER: Now, the cleaning staff, for some reason, all wore white smocks, similar to artists' smocks.

RAZ: Which is why the previous day no one in the museum paid much attention to the three Italian men dressed in those smocks. One of them was Vincenzo Perugia.

ZUG: He had been part of a team that the Louvre had contracted out to put a glass box on the Mona Lisa.

RAZ: A glass box to protect the painting from thieves. Historian James Zug says on Sunday night, the night before the heist...

ZUG: When the museum was closing, they went into a storeroom right near the gallery where the "Mona Lisa" was hung.

RAZ: They slept inside the storeroom that night, and then early Monday morning, they slipped out and the "Mona Lisa," just hanging there on a few hooks.

HOOBLER: Four hooks, in this case.

RAZ: And the thieves took their time.

HOOBLER: Coolly waited until nobody was around.

RAZ: And then...

HOOBLER: Lifted the painting...

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HOOBLER: ...right off the wall.

RAZ: They ditched the heavy case in the frame and walked out with Leonardo's masterpiece. It was heavy. The "Mona Lisa" was painted on a piece of wood. The thieves hid it under a blanket. When people went to visit the Louvre at the time, is the first thing they did was to make a beeline to the "Mona Lisa," like they do today, like I've done?

ZUG: Right. The first time I did it, I did as well. I sort of did. Back then, nobody would have made a beeline for the "Mona Lisa." The "Mona Lisa" wasn't even the most famous painting in its gallery, let alone in the museum.

RAZ: Not until Tuesday, more than 24 hours later, did the Louvre announce the painting was missing. And all of a sudden...

ZUG: The "Mona Lisa" becomes this incredibly famous painting literally overnight.

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HOOBLER: Oh, it was sensational. It was a huge story.

ZUG: All the newspapers come out with big headlines about this.

HOOBLER: People coming forward, claiming they knew who the thief was.

RAZ: And Dorothy Hoobler says there were conspiracy theories.

HOOBLER: In France, there was a great deal of concern that American millionaires were buying up the legacy of France, the best paintings.

RAZ: J.P. Morgan was a suspect, so was Picasso. He was arrested and questioned by police.

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RAZ: For more than two years, the "Mona Lisa" sat at the bottom of a trunk in a tiny room at a boarding house in Paris where Perugia was staying, until finally, two and a half years later, he boarded a train to Florence with the "Mona Lisa." And in Florence, Perugia tried to sell it to an art dealer.

HOOBLER: The dealer didn't know whether to believe it or not because there were always false reports of it showing up, and people were beginning to think that whoever had taken it had either destroyed it or it was in some collection and it would never appear again.

RAZ: So the dealer called in an expert, a local gallery director, who recognized the distinctive stamp on the back of the painting.

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RAZ: It was the real thing.

HOOBLER: And so they said, OK. Leave it with us, and we'll see that you get a reward. And he went back to his hotel room, trusting, leaving it with them and, you know, half an hour later, the police were at the door and he said he was very surprised.

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RAZ: The "Mona Lisa" went back to the Louvre. Perugia pleaded guilty and was sentenced to eight months in jail. But the story was off the front pages pretty quickly. A few days after Perugia's trial, World War I broke out.

ZUG: It's a pretty incredible story. And, you know, everybody's heard of the painting, of course, but nobody knew sort of the history of it and especially this moment that made it such an iconic painting.

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RAZ: That's writer and historian James Zug. His article on the "Mona Lisa" appears in the latest issue of Smithsonian magazine. We also spoke with Tom and Dorothy Hoobler. Their book is called "The Crimes of Paris."

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NAT KING COLE: (Singing) Mona Lisa, Mona Lisa, men have named you. You're so like the lady with the misfit smile. Is it only...

RAZ: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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