Strategists are interested in confidence men – not only do con’s make good stories but the con itself requires a good grasp of a number of the strategic principles. Being a con artist is a high risk strategy and one of questionable value – it is illegal and often the brilliant minds of con men would profit more by focusing on legal means of accumulating wealth (just as there is far more money to be made by starting a bank rather than robbing one).
Studying con artists such as Victor Lustig (the man who sold the Eiffel Tower) and the brilliant Joseph Weill aka “The Yellow Kid” teaches us most about the strategic principle I call “Morale” – a con is all about human nature and power of belief and desire overriding common sense.
“Each of my victims had larceny in his heart. The desire to get something for nothing has been very costly to many people who have dealt with me and with other con men,” Joseph Weil
On August 22, 1911 Vincenzo Peruggia perpetrated what has been described as the greatest art theft of the 20th century. The former Louvre worker hid inside the museum on Sunday, August 20, knowing that the museum would be closed the following day. Emerging from his hiding place on Monday morning, he wore one of the white artists’ smocks that museum employees customarily wore and was indistinguishable from the other workers. When the Salon Carre where the Mona Lisa hung was empty, he lifted it from the wall and took it to an enclosed stairwell. There he removed the protective case and frame and concealed the painting under his smock and left the Louvre with it.
After having kept the painting in his apartment for two years, Peruggia grew impatient and was finally caught when he attempted to sell it to the directors of the Uffizi Gallery in Florence; it was exhibited all over Italy and returned to the Louvre in 1913.
Peruggia claimed he was an Italian patriot and the reason for his theft was that the painting should be returned to Italy for display in an Italian museum. Peruggia was hailed for his patriotism in Italy and only served six months in jail for the crime. After its recovery the painting was exhibited all over Italy with banner headlines rejoicing its return and then returned to the Louvre in 1913. Peruggia was released from jail after a short time and served in the Italian army during World War I.
In 1931, a reporter named Karl Decker revealed information that was passed onto him seventeen years earlier by a man named Marque’ Eduardo de Valfierno. Decker stated that the interview took place in Jan/1914, but Valfierno swore him to secrecy until after his death.
Valfierno was a con man who sold fake Spanish masters, such as Bartolome’ Murillo, in Buenos Aires. His partner, Yves Chaudron, was a conservator and master forger. would show a dishonest, wealthy tourist in Buenos Aires a painting in a museum, and convince him that he could steal it and deliver it to them in their native land. After delivering a copy of the painting, he would fake newspaper clippings that announced the theft.
In 1910, Valfierno moved this operation upscale. Valfierno convinced Peruggia to steal the MonaLisa, so they could sell it for a fortune. After the theft of the painting Valfierno never even contacted Peruggia – he did not really want to sell the painting that would be far too risky instead he had Chaudron make 5 expert forgeries and had already sold all of them as the original to foreign collectors.
Why it worked
- Art is extremely valuable yet small and easy to hide or transport – it is also often far less secured than money, gold, or jewelry
- He pre-shipped the forgeries to the same city as the buyers before the painting was even stolen – this way he did not risk them being discovered in transit after all the publicity erupted
- He chose an incredibly famous painting knowing the theft would generate huge publicity – exciting the buyers even further and ensuring their skepticism would be lower than normal
- Even if a customer did manage to track him down and confront him after the Mona Lisa was ‘returned’ he could very plausibly claim that the Louvre was displaying a fake so as to not be embarrassed at losing a French national treasure. This is a lie the buyer would very much want to believe as to think otherwise would be to admit being duped.
- As an aside the thief Peruggia’s claim of being an Italian patriot was a good strategic move in the realm of Morale (I suspect he was advised to do this by Valfierno). Italy refused to extradite him, he served just 6 months, most of it in comfort and ended up living in France after he retired!
- By selling forgeries he could sell the painting not just once but 5 times.
- He could sell the paintings for enough to retire – no need to expose himself to risk again.
- Even if his forgery was discovered there is no risk of the buyer going to the police as the buyer himself is engaging in an illegal act.
- Convinced someone else to carry out the theft
- Did not bother to collect or pay for the original painting thus avoiding a lot of risk AND saving money
- He had carried out this con before on a smaller scale and so
There have been more spectacular cons and perhaps higher value ones such as the selling of the Eiffel Tower or the selling of a gem mine to Tiffany & Co. but for the sheer creativity, low risk and success I think the Valfierno Mona Lisa sale must be the best con ever.