Lost Lisa

Before I got into my cell
I had to strip my body bare
I heard an ominous voice say Well
Guillaume what are you doing here?…

—from Guillaume Apollinaire’s “In Jail”



On this day in 1911 Guillaume Apollinaire was jailed, suspected of being involved in the theft of the Mona Lisa from the Louvre. The circumstantial evidence which pointed to Apollinaire also pointed to his friend Picasso, and he too was arrested. While Picasso was released almost immediately, Apollinaire was held for almost a week, and not cleared until months later; the painting was not recovered until 1913, and not before eight forgeries had been sold to collectors.

The story is a strange one, though perhaps one suiting the man who coined “surrealism.” The painting had been stolen on August 21st; a week later, a former secretary of Apollinaire’s named Gery Pieret went to the Paris Journal with an Iberian statuette he had stolen from the Louvre, to get publicity for himself and to demonstrate how easy such thieving was. Apollinaire read the story in the paper, realized that the statuette had been kept at his house, and began to worry. Picasso probably worried more: Pieret had sold him two Iberian statues several years earlier, advising him to keep them in a private place.

Terrified that they would be implicated in some art-theft ring, Apollinaire and Picasso first planned to flee. Reconsidering, they packed the statuettes in a suitcase, waited for midnight and headed for the Seine, planning to drown them when no one was looking. It seemed to them that everyone was looking, and they returned home to work up a new plan. This one had Apollinaire going to the Journal the next morning, where he handed over the statuettes and their story in return for a guarantee of anonymity. By evening he was in jail, accused of being “chief of an international gang come to France to despoil our museums.”

Accounts of these and subsequent events describe Apollinaire after his arrest and interrogation as “a lamentable wreck,” one so rattled by the authorities that he apparently attested to every accusation from the magistrate. (Picasso, just as rattled, went in the opposite direction: when brought in for questioning before the same magistrate, and in Apollinaire’s handcuffed presence, he apparently denied even knowing his friend.) Some of Apollinaire’s biographers go much further, claiming that the experience had a lifelong impact on a man already marginalized in French society, the “bastard, foreigner, writer of erotica, poet” now also a thief. According to this view, Apollinaire volunteered for the French army in WWI in order to erase such a stigma. He was seriously wounded in battle, his death in 1918 from the Spanish flu pandemic perhaps attributable to his war-weakened state.