An 18th century British painting stolen by New Jersey mobsters in 1969 has been returned more than a half-century later to the family that bought it for $7,500 during the Great Depression, the FBI’s Salt Lake City field office announced Friday.
The 40-inch-by-50-inch (102-cm-by-127-cm) John Opie painting — titled “The Schoolmistress” — is the sister painting of a similar work housed in the Tate Britain art gallery in London.
Authorities believe the piece was stolen with the help of a former New Jersey lawmaker, then passed among organized crime members for years before it ended up in the southern Utah city of St. George. A Utah man had purchased a house in Florida in 1989 from Joseph Covello Sr. — a convicted mobster linked to the Gambino family — and the painting was included in the sale, the FBI said.
When the buyer died in 2020, a Utah accounting firm that was seeking to liquidate his property sought an appraisal for the painting and it was discovered to likely be the stolen piece, the FBI said.
The painting, which dates to about 1784, was taken into custody by the agency pending resolution of who owned it and returned on Jan. 11 to Dr. Francis Wood, 96, of Newark, the son of the painting's original owner, Dr. Earl Wood, who bought it during the 1930s, the FBI said.
“This piece of art, what a history it’s had,” said FBI Special Agent Gary France, who worked on the case. "It traveled all through the U.K. when it was first painted, and owned by quite a few families in the U.K. And then it travels overseas to the United States and is sold during the Great Depression and then stolen by the mob and recovered by the FBI decades later. It’s quite amazing.”
Opie, who came from the Cornwall region, was one of the most important British historical and portrait painters in his time, said Lucinda Lax, curator of paintings at the Yale Center for British Art in New Haven, Connecticut. His paintings have sold at major auction houses such as Sotheby’s and Christie’s, including one bought in 2007 for almost $1 million.
Opie often portrayed British royals and other members of the elite. But he also depicted scenes from ordinary life, such as in “The Schoolmistress,” which shows an older teacher sitting at a table with a book and surrounded by young students.
“It's such a compelling painting,” Lax said. "It's a subject drawn from everyday life and he paints it in a very direct, straightforward way. He's not artificially elevating it."
According to the FBI, the painting was taken from Earl Wood's house by three men working at the direction of former New Jersey state Sen. Anthony Imperiale, who died in 1999. Imperiale, a political firebrand who also served as a Newark city councilman, was in the national spotlight in the 1960s as a spokesman for cracking down on crime. He was also divisive, organizing citizen patrols to keep Black protesters out of Italian neighborhoods during riots in Newark in the summer of 1967.
Authorities say the thieves broke into the house in July 1969 in a bid to steal a coin collection, but were foiled by a burglar alarm. Local police and Imperiale responded to the attempted burglary, and the home's caretaker told the lawmaker that the Opie painting in the home was “priceless,” the FBI said.
The men returned to the house later that month and stole the painting, the FBI said.
One of the thieves, Gerald Festa, later confessed to the burglary, in the 1975 trial of an accomplice, and said the trio been acting under Imperiale. Festa said the thieves had visited Imperiale prior to the theft and were told by the lawmaker where to find the painting in Wood's home, the FBI said. Festa also testified that Imperiale had the painting.
The claims against the state lawmaker were not sufficiently corroborated and he was never charged, France said.
No charges have been filed by the FBI since the painting's recovery because all of those believed to have been involved are dead, France said. The three men who stole the painting were all convicted of other mob-related crimes before their deaths, he said.
Francis Wood’s son, Tom, recalled on Friday how “The Schoolmistress” hung for decades in his grandparent’s dining room, where it loomed over Sunday dinners and other family gatherings until its sudden disappearance. Francis Wood bought another, smaller Opie painting about 25 years ago as a placeholder for the lost piece and was “just thrilled” to get the stolen piece back, Tom Wood said.
It’s now being cleaned and appraised, but remains in good condition with only a few flecks of paint missing from the piece, according to France.
“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,” Tom Wood said. “Whoever has had their hands on it, I’m thankful they took care of the painting.”
___ This story has been corrected to show that the comments in the story’s final paragraphs are from Tom Wood, not David Wood.