“They are maybe the most iconic cinematic prop or costume in movie history, and in fact, in cultural history.”
— Rhys Thomas, film historian
“I am making a vow for you to live long and enjoy the prize that your son is about to realize for you and for all our family.”
— Vincenzo Peruggia, Mona Lisa thief
Last week, the FBI announced that it had made a major breakthrough in the most famous heist of movie memorabilia in American history. A pair of ruby slippers, worn by Judy Garland in “The Wizard of Oz” had been stolen from the Garland museum in Grand Rapids, Minnesota, 13 years ago.
The shoes were on loan to the museum from memorabilia collector Michael Shaw. Shaw had the shoes insured for $1 million, and the circumstances of the theft led to legal action between Shaw and the insurance company. After the 2005 smash-and-grab theft of the slippers, it was discovered that both the museum’s alarm system and security cameras had been turned off.
The strange circumstances led many to think that the theft had been an “inside job” or perhaps even masterminded by Shaw himself, in order to collect the insurance money. Shaw, for his part, vehemently denied the allegations and was sued by the insurance company in its effort to avoid paying him. They settled the case out of court in 2007, with Shaw receiving $800,000 of the insurance value. Now, the shoes have been recovered — though not without more intrigue and the help of science.
Apparently, whoever had the shoes, and the FBI is not identifying that person yet, approached the insurance company last year and told them that he could get the shoes back for them. The insurance company contacted local police, the local police contacted the FBI, and a year-long sting operation was undertaken.
A pair of ruby slippers was recovered in the process, but the FBI had to be sure that they were the real slippers and not fakes made to be sold in the place of the real ones. To prove that, they enlisted the help of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. Conservators there had just finished restoring another pair of ruby slippers from the film (five are known to exist) with funds from a Kickstarter campaign.
Not only were the researchers at the Smithsonian able to match materials, jewels, specific repair methods and age between the two pairs of shoes, they actually discovered that the shoes are mismatched, and they and the museum in Minnesota each had one half of two different pairs. It appears the mistake was made was made by MGM when the shoes were sold at auction in 1970.
Fittingly, it was 107 years ago that an arrest was made in one of the greatest art heists in history. Not many people remember it now, but the Mona Lisa was stolen from the Louvre in Paris on Aug. 21, 1911. The painting, famous today, but not nearly as famous then, was in the museum one evening, and then gone the next morning. After a three-week investigation, Paris authorities arrested a French author and WWI veteran named Guillaume Apollinaire in September.
A central figure in the Paris art movement of the time, Apollinaire immediately threw his friend Pablo Picasso under the autobus, telling police that perhaps the famous painter was involved instead. In the end, neither of them had anything to do with the heist. An Italian nationalist named Vincenzo Peruggia had smuggled the painting out of the museum, hid it in Italy for two years, and then was arrested when he tried to sell it to an art dealer in Florence. The dealer turned him in, and the painting was returned to the Louvre in 1913.
The theft made for banner newspaper headlines, and the fame of the Mona Lisa grew considerably because of it. Peruggia died in 1925 at the age of 44. Appolinaire, cleared of the crime, resumed his literary and artistic career, but was one of the 50-plus million victims of the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic, succumbing to the illness at the age of 38.
The Mona Lisa remains at the Louvre, where it is under some of the tightest security in the art world (it sits protected by bullet proof glass). The recovered ruby slippers continue to be evidence in the FBI investigation, which is ongoing. Perhaps, when the investigation is done, they’ll return to Minnesota or to their owner Mr. Shaw, because, after all, there’s no place like home.
David Hejmanowski is judge of the Probate/Juvenile Division of the Delaware County Delaware County Court of Common Pleas and vice president of the Board of Trustees of the Central Ohio Symphony.