’The Portrait of Mona Lisa’ painted by Leonardo da Vinci hangs in the Louvre.
'The Portrait of Mona Lisa' painted by Leonardo da Vinci hangs in the Louvre. (Getty Images)

LENOX -- The young Pablo Picasso and his best friend, the poet Guillaume Apollinaire, are walking by the Seine. They carry a suitcase between them, and they walk quickly, jerkily, looking around them. Picasso has refused to leave his apartment at night. Apollinaire has been questioned by the police.

In the suitcase they are carrying four Iberian sculptures. These sculpted heads have given Picasso the key to Cubism -- he has studied them obsessively as he worked on his painting "Les Damoiselles D'Avignon" -- and for four years they have lain hidden in his wardrobe.

They are stolen from the Louvre.

And the highest absurdity is that no one has noticed that they are gone. These two young men in their 30s have taken to the streets because of another theft entirely. The Mona Lisa has vanished, and the world knows it.

A hundred years ago, on a December morning in Florence, the Mona Lisa reappeared. On a morning like this one, a Florentine art dealer and the head of the Uffizi Gallery, one of Florence's premiere art museums, came to a hotel room in answer to a letter -- and there, out of the false bottom of a trunk, she emerged wrapped in red silk.

Berkshire playwright and Ventfort Hall historian Nannina Gilder has told the story of her disappearance, of the thief who kept her hidden from 1911 to 1913, and of the far-reaching -- and often hilarious -- investigation that failed to find him.

"It's a story I've been interested in for years," Gilder said. "It's a strange story, and the tangents that break off are just as interesting."

One tangent even touches J.P. Morgan, head the family who built Ventfort Hall. Thom Whaley will perform a staged reading there at the Gilded Age Museum on Saturday.

Gilder researched the theft through histories and especially through contemporary news stories and other primary sources "to see what people are thinking and feeling," she said.

The Mona Lisa became world-famous because she was stolen. She became the talk of every tea room and cocktail party, Gilder said. Newspapers hatched theories involving mythical South American potentates and a conman who had died 10 years before.

"I think the real story is better," Gilder said.

She finds the real thief a compelling figure. He was not a career criminal, but he had tremendous luck and a cool head under pressure.

People wanted a romantic escapade, she said, and the story is rich with color and drama and slapstick humor.

But the Louvre in 1911 did not have the sophisticated alarm systems of "The Thomas Crown Affair."

It did not even have glass cases. The museum, frightened by an anarchist attack on some of its works, had just decided to put the Mona Lisa behind glass, Gilder said, and had hired an Italian immigrant, a working-class patriot and carpenter, to build a case for her.

A thief who knew what he wanted could, in effect, simply walk out with it into a street of shops in the early morning.

The painting disappeared from the Louvre on a Monday, when the museum was closed -- and no one noticed. The next day, an artist arriving to sketch the Mona Lisa asked a guard in the room where the painting had gone, and the guard assumed the museum had taken her to photograph.

The thief even left a left thumbprint behind -- but fingerprinting was so new a technique that all prints were filed by the right hand, Gilder said, so the French police could not look up a left thumb.

In fact, the only person the French police ever arrested in connection with the crime was Apollinaire, and they released him. His secretary most likely stole for Picasso the Iberian sculpture he was pouring over for his painting, Gilder said. The Louvre was going to put them into storage, and Picasso wanted them to study.

That impulse, and the interrogation it led to, would break up his close friendship with Apollinaire.

Gilder imagined sympathetically their terror of the police and what the investigation could have cost them.

Apollinaire and Picasso both came to Paris as adults and loved it. Apollinaire was born in Rome to a Polish mother, Gilder said, and Picasso was Spanish.

"In 1911, Picasso is just becoming known," she said. "People are finally buying his work. He has spent years poor, painting over his own canvases, living on a boat."

In the spring of 1911, with Apollinaire's help, six young painters had stirred up a scandal and made themselves famous by subtly influencing the "Salon des Independents," the spring show of the Society of Independent Artists, and making sure their work would appear in the same room.

The Salon des Independents had fostered avant garde artists for nearly 30 years -- Gaugin, Toulouse-Lautrec, Pissarro, Césanne, van Gogh, Rousseau -- and now a new group had emerged.

In the summer, Apollinaire had coined the word "Cubism," and the young movement had gained a foothold.

And in August the Mona Lisa vanished.

Apollinaire spent six days in jail and under interrogation, Gilder said. And she argued that those six days changed his life -- and influenced his death.

Three years later, when World War I broke out, he would enlist to prove his loyalty to his country, and he would die in the influenza epidemic of 1918 before the war ended.

If you go ...

What: ‘The Curious Abduction of the Mona Lisa' dramatic reading

When: 7 p.m. Friday

Where: Ventfort Hall Gilded Age mansion decorated for the holidays: Second floor now open, tours through New Year's Eve. 104 Walker St., Lenox

Admission: $18 in advance, $23 at the door

Information: (413) 637-3206, www.gildedage.org