The curious case of the Hekking Mona Lisa

Raymond Hekking caused a sensation when he declared that the version of Leonardo da Vinci’s famous portrait that he owned was the real deal

In the 1950s, antique dealer Raymond Hekking discovered a portrait that, in the words of Pierre Etienne, International Director, Old Master Paintings, would ‘change his life completely’. The work was a 17th-century Italian copy that Hekking was convinced was the true Mona Lisa. He would dedicate the rest of his career to proving that the work by Leonardo da Vinci was the one he had bought for £3, while the work in the Louvre was a copy. Etienne has no doubt, ‘It is not the Mona Lisa, it is the Hekking Mona Lisa’.

The Mona Lisa had been stolen from the Louvre in 1914. Hekking became convinced that the painting that was returned to the gallery was not the true work. He asserted that the real painting was the one in his possession. He was also certain that the museum would be unable to prove that their painting was the right one.

Raymond Hekking
Raymond Hekking

The impossibility of proving a negative feels like an important principle to remember here. In order to bolster his claim, he showed the work to renowned art historian Max Jacob Friedländer. Despite the fact that Friedländer’s expertise was in Flemish painting and he was almost at the close of his career, he suggested Hekking’s painting could be the Mona Lisa. This spurred Hekking on.

Hekking was very talented at publicity and organised a Pathé film. The film shows him examining the painting, bringing in experts to examine it and using the beguiling setting of his house in the village of Magagnosc, close to Grasse, to lend weight to his claims. His biggest coup, however, was to launch this film while the Louvre had sent the Mona Lisa to Washington DC for an exhibition.

The Hekking Mona Lisa. Oil on canvas. 79.5 x 47 cm (31¼ x 18½ in). Estimate €200,000-300,000. Offered in The Hekking Mona Lisa on 11-18 June 2021 at Christie’s Online
The Hekking Mona Lisa. Oil on canvas. 79.5 x 47 cm (31¼ x 18½ in). Estimate: €200,000-300,000. Offered in The Hekking Mona Lisa on 11-18 June 2021 at Christie’s Online

While it might seem improbable, the case was taken seriously by the art historical community. Etienne has uncovered correspondence and articles written in French, English and Russian, all evaluating the claim that this painting might be considered. 

Hekking managed to insinuate his argument into contemporary thinking through the strength of his belief and his showmanship. Even today, according to Etienne, Hekking’s picture ‘is very famous in the Louvre’ and is known even to the actual curators.

A selection of press clippings showing the sensation caused by the Hekking Mona Lisa
A selection of press clippings showing the sensation caused by the Hekking Mona Lisa

The story of Hekking’s obsession represents the power of Leonardo’s work; what Etienne calls ‘the power of the image… It is the same thing as Marilyn Monroe  by Andy Warhol, it has the same kind of impact.’ For new collectors, the image of the Mona Lisa represents ‘the highest expression of the European Renaissance’, which perhaps explains the growing trend in collecting copies of the Mona Lisa. A 17th-century copy of the painting sold for $1,695,000 in New York.

For Etienne, Hekking’s mission represents ‘a dream; it is the fascinating world of Mona Lisa and Leonardo, and in seeing the picture we create our own world, we have our own story.’ Hekking had created his own story. This painting, by an anonymous Italian artist of the early 17th century, is not as compelling as the work in the Louvre but it conjures something of that world and, as Etienne says, ‘in a world of images, in which only the strongest ones stay in our mind, allows the dream to go on.’