‘Priceless’ 18th-century painting returned after theft by mobsters 54 years ago

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A historic English painting stolen by New Jersey mobsters more than 50 years ago has been returned to its owner after a two-year FBI investigation.

“The Schoolmistress,” a painting by notable artist John Opie around 1784, was taken from the home of Francis Wood, 96, in Newark, in 1969.

Earlier this month, a judge in Washington County, Utah, ruled that the painting was Wood’s rightful property following an investigation by FBI agents in Salt Lake City and detectives from the Metropolitan Police in London, the FBI said on Friday.

“It was an honor playing a role in recovering a significant piece of art and culture, and reuniting a family with its stolen heritage,” Special Agent Gary France said in a statement. “In a world where criminal investigations often leave scars, it was a rare joy to be a part of a win-win case: a triumph for history, justice, and the Wood family.”

Wood’s son, David Wood, told The Associated Press: “It has one or two minor blemishes, but for a painting that’s 240 years old and has been on a roundabout journey, it’s in pretty good shape.”

He added: “Whoever has had their hands on it, I’m thankful they took care of the painting.”

The oil-on-canvas painting is about 40 inches by 50 inches and shows an elderly woman, possibly modeled on the artist’s mother, teaching children in an austere classroom in Opie’s native Cornwall, in southwest England.

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A similar sister painting by Opie, held at the Tate Britain gallery in London, launched his career when it was displayed at London’s Royal Academy in 1784.

Opie, one of the most important artists of his period, went on to paint historical scenes and was commissioned to paint portraits of the royal family. In 2007, one of his paintings was sold at auction for 457,300 pounds ($580,000).

The painting was thought to be in the hands of organized crime gangs for five decades — until in 2021 an accounting firm in Washington County, Utah, found it among the property of a client who died the previous year.

The deceased client, who has not been named, bought a house from convicted mobster Joseph Covello Sr. in Florida in 1989 — unknown to the buyer, the painting was in the house. It remained there before being taken to Utah.

While appraising the painting for an auction, the firm discovered it was likely an original Opie and was stolen from the Wood family home in 1969 and contacted the FBI.

Earl Leroy Wood, Francis’ father, bought the painting in the 1930s for $7,500

Court documents from the time show that on July 7, 1969, Gerald Festa, Gerald Donnerstag, and Austin Castiglione — who have since died — tried to steal a coin collection from the Wood residence but triggered a burglar alarm and fled. The same trio returned on July 25 and took the painting.

Festa confessed to taking the painting during Donnerstag’s trial in 1975 and said he and the others were acting under the direction of then-state senator Anthony Imperiale, who died in 1999.

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Police and Imperiale both responded to the burglary, with the Wood family’s caretaker telling the senator that the painting was “priceless.”

Festa said the thieves had visited Imperiale’s clubhouse and were told exactly where the painting was. The claims against Imperiale were never corroborated.

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