On this day in 1932, the Saturday Evening Post published an article written by journalist Karl Decker who claimed he knew the true story of who was behind the theft of the Mona Lisa -- the Marquis Eduardo de Valfiermo.
So who was the Marquis de Valfierno?
Journalist Karl Decker claimed that in January 1914, a man named the Marques Eduardo de Valfierno told him how he had masterminded the theft of the Mona Lisa. Eighteen years later, Decker published this story in The Saturday Evening Post. Decker said that the theft was orchestrated as a scam to sell Mona Lisa forgeries to gullible American millionaires. Peruggia was just a patsy hired by Valfierno to steal the original. Since then many have wondered if this story was true.
In doing my film, my wife Justine, our Senior Researcher Eileen White and myself spent months deconstructing Decker’s story. I also interviewed a number of experts on art theft, forgery and journalism of Decker’s day and none of them saw the story as the least bit credible.
So where did Valfierno come from? I believe Karl Decker made him up.
Decker was a journalist who had worked for William Randolph Hearst. He was one of Hearst’s stable of men who had fomented the Spanish-American War in 1898. By the time Decker wrote the SatPost article, his star had faded. He was no longer a newspaperman. He had become a pulp fiction writer.
Decker didn’t leave behind any cache of papers so there is nothing in his own words to explain his tale. But I have found a number of front-page newspaper stories, which I believe Decker as a seasoned newspaperman would have known about. I contend that Decker used these stories to draw details to construct the yarn of Valfierno and Mona Lisa forgeries.
In 1910, newspapers in France and America were filled with front-page stories of the arrest and trial of one ‘Count D’Aulby,’ a so-called aristocrat who sold forged masterpieces to American millionaires. D’Aulby was as much of a Count as Valfierno was a Marques. He was just plain George Daulby, the son of a British tailor.
Several days after the theft of the Mona Lisa, newspapers reported that the French police suspected an American named Eddie Guerin of the crime. Guerin was a legendary criminal who had robbed the American Express office in Paris, got caught and was sent to the French penal colony in Guyana. He escaped in 1905. The papers were filled with the exploits of the man who ‘had escaped from Devil’s Island.’
So it was natural that when the Mona Lisa was stolen, police eyes turned to this master criminal. A wire story from New York on August 24, 1911 said that Guerin “had in mind a scheme having da Vinci’s picture copied and of foisting the copy on a Philadelphia multimillionaire on the pretext that it was original and had been stolen.” Sound familiar?
Guerin denied he had any involvement in this scam or in the theft. Police seemed to have believed him.
My research has led to me believe that Decker may have created the Marques Eduardo de Valfierno by combining elements of Count D’Aulby and Eddie Guerin. You don’t have to look far to see the Eduardo-Eddie connection. And the name Valfierno? Decker claimed it meant “vale of hell.” Who better to name ‘vale of hell’ than Eddie Guerin, the man who escaped from Devil’s Island?
To me, the biggest piece of evidence for Decker using other newspaper articles as the basis of his research is a full-page story in the Sunday New York Times published in July 1913. It was written by an editor named Walter Littlefield. In this story, Littlefield gives the composition of the Mona Lisa. He says that it was painted on three panels of close-grained Italian walnut an inch-and-a-half thick. To keep the wooden panel from warping, it was backed by a cradle of ebony that weighed 110 pounds. Together, the panel, frame cradle and glass weighed over 200 pounds.
Decker uses the exact same details in Valfierno’s description of the Mona Lisa. The reason I believe that Decker may have lifted these facts from Littlefield’s article is that they are totally wrong.
I spoke with the Louvre’s Chief scientist Michel Menu who told me the Mona Lisa is a single piece of poplar wood about a half-inch thick. The cradle is sycamore and weighs about 2 pounds. Louvre Conservator Vincent Delieuvin told me that the Mona Lisa in its frame is easy to carry. In fact, he has carried it by himself. So it weighs nowhere near 200 pounds.
So in the end Karl Decker’s story in the June 25, 1932 issue of the Saturday Evening Post remains just that – a story.