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Historic Thefts: The Mona Lisa and Legal Quests for Repatriation

The following is a guest post by Casey Mazzoli, a former intern with the Digital Resources Division of the Law Library of Congress. She is a graduate of the Masters of Library and Information Science program at Kent State University

On August 22, 1911, the Mona Lisa was stolen from the Louvre, gaining the painting an unprecedented level of fame. The theft was investigated for two years, and in December of 1913, the painting was recovered and a suspect apprehended. Vincenzo Perugia, an Italian nationalist and Louvre employee, confessed to stealing the painting. He said it had originally been taken from Italy by Napoleon, and he had wanted to return the painting to its rightful home.

A black and white image of Leonardo da Vinci's painting, Mona Lisa/

Mona Lisa. Leonardo da Vinci. Published by Detroit Publishing Co [between 1900 and 1915]. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/det.4a25019

The Mona Lisa had not, in fact, been taken from Italy by Napoleon Bonaparte, although it did briefly hang in his bedroom. As Washington, D.C.’s Evening Star clarified at the time, the painting had been purchased by Francis I, King of France and patron of Leonardo da Vinci. Other sources say the painter gifted the item to his patron. The Mona Lisa was returned to the Louvre, and Perugia was sentenced to one year and fifteen days in prison by the court in Florence, Italy. But Perugia’s motivation indicates the importance of returning works of art and other cultural objects to countries previously colonized by Western nations.

Efforts toward repatriation, or the act of returning items and cultural heritage objects to their homes of origin, are part of both national and international legislative conversations. At the end of 2020, the French Senate released an informative report discussing a recent emphasis on repatriation efforts in politics and public opinion. France has received requests from six different countries in Africa for the return of items displayed in French public collections. The 2020 Senate report acknowledges that former colonial powers regularly receive repatriation requests for items displayed in their museums that were acquired long ago by force or colonial law.

For example, even Perugia’s flawed claim about Napoleon was rooted in historical fact. During the French Revolution (1789-1799), the French government began amassing art through strategies like the nationalization of art collections at home plus military lootings, government-sanctioned confiscations, and terms of peace treaties. Papal cities, in particular, were targeted for their artworks. In the Louvre’s early days, these conquests at home and abroad helped to build the museum’s collection.

The treaty between France and Pope Pius VI at Tolentino (1797) was significant in ceding the artwork of papal cities to France. In addition to requiring the Pope to give rule of certain territories to the French Republic and to pay the French army in Livres, diamonds, and animals of use to the army, article XIII stated that the terms of the Armistice of Bologna “concerning the manuscripts and objects of art” must be met swiftly.

Etching shows Pope Pius VI on his knees being reprimanded by God, in the form of a bird, after giving up art treasures as a result of the Treaty of Tolentino.

Le meâ culpâ du Pape / S. L’amerique inv. sculp. Paris: Se vent rue de la harpe No. 493, [1797]. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.07690

The Gazette of the United States, & Philadelphia Daily Advertiser, which covered the Treaty of Tolentino, previously printed correspondence from Napoleon, recording the acquisition of art from Parma and Modena, while works of interest from Bologna were being selected. The Gazette also reported “the conditions of a suspension of hostilities” in the region, but works of art are not mentioned in this instance.

The French Senate’s recent report discusses the difficulty of repatriating items from the time of colonial wars due to the non-retroactive scope of present laws, as well as other complications arising from evaluating colonial law and the removal of cultural heritage items. Museum policies and philosophies also receive significant commentary. Still, some repatriations have been completed in recent decades. Following New Zealand’s change in policy on returning indigenous artifacts, French Senator Catherine Morin-Desailly drafted a law to authorize the return of preserved Māori heads to their iwi (tribes) for burial. The law was passed in 2010. In December 2020, France enacted another law related to returning specified items from the Quai Branly-Jacques Chirac museum’s collection to Senegal and Benin, which both gained independence from France in 1960.

France’s 2020 Senate Report posits that former colonial powers and their cultural institutions must discern a way forward. One proposal is for France to ratify the 1995 UNIDROIT Convention. More details on how the implementation of this convention, and United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Cultural Property (1970), have supported New Zealand’s aforementioned repatriation efforts can be found in the Law Library’s report on Repatriation of Historic Human Remains.

France’s story is just one among many worldwide repatriation processes grappling with the past through the ownership of its relics. You can learn more about other legal initiatives and their progress below:

Europe:

  • Global Legal Monitor, European Union: Revision of Directive on Return of Unlawfully Removed Cultural Objects
  • Global Legal Monitor, Sweden: Parliament Directs Government to Investigate Return of Sámi Cultural Heritage Objects
  • Global Legal Monitor, Germany: Act to Protect Cultural Property Passed
  • European Union, Council Directive 93/7/EEC of 15 March 1993 on the return of cultural objects unlawfully removed from the territory of a Member State
  • European Union, Directive 2014/60/EU of the European Parliament and of the Council of 15 May 2014 on the return of cultural objects unlawfully removed from the territory of a Member State and amending Regulation (EU) No 1024/2012 (Recast)
  • U.K. Parliament, Explanatory Memorandum to the Return of Cultural Objects (Revocation) Regulations 2018
  • U.K. Parliament, Explanatory Memorandum to the Return of Cultural Objects (Revocation) (EU Exit) (Amendment) Regulations 2020

United States:

Mongolia:

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