A painting older than the US Constitution was returned to its rightful owner this month – more than 50 years after being stolen by mobsters, the FBI said in a news release.
“The Schoolmistress,” by English painter John Opie, was found among items in a 2021 estate sale. The oil painting on canvas dates to about 1784.
In 1975 a man called Gerald Festa had testified he and two other people with ties to organized crime had stolen the painting from the home of Dr. Earl Leroy Wood in 1969, court documents state. It turned up again during the 1989 sale of the home of convicted mobster Joseph Covello, Sr.
At the time, no one understood the significance of the painting and it was sold as part of Covello’s Florida property to a man who, the FBI said, had no idea about its history. After the buyer died in 2020, his family was liquidating his estate and discovered the real history of the painting through an appraiser they hired.
“When I saw it, it certainly appeared to be an 18th Century painting,” appraiser Emily Stauffer told CNN affiliate KUTV. “It was a well-done painting.”
It took more than two years for Wood’s family to find the documentation proving the painting belonged to them. The FBI delivered the work of art to Wood’s son, 96-year-old Dr. Francis Wood, on January 11.
“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,” said FBI Special Agent Gary France.
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