British masterpiece painting stolen by mobsters in 1969 returns to original family

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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 (€6,900) during the Great Depression. 

The 40-inch-by-50-inch John Opie painting – titled “The Schoolmistress” – is the sister painting of a similar work housed in the Tate Britain art gallery in London.

The FBI believes the painting was stolen with the assistance of Anthony Imperiale, a former New Jersey lawmaker, passed among organised crime members, and eventually ended up in St. George, Utah.

In 1989, a Utah man bought a house in Florida from Joseph Covello Sr., a convicted mobster linked to the Gambino family, and the painting was part of the sale. 

When the buyer died in 2020, an accounting firm discovered the likely stolen piece while appraising his property. 

The FBI took custody of the painting, dating back to 1784, and returned it on 11 January to Dr. Francis Wood, 96, the son of the original owner.

The return of a masterpiece

Dr. Francis Wood, 96, admires the John Opie painting, “The Schoolmistress”, that was stolen from his parents’ Newark, N.J. home in 1969.

John Opie, who came from the Cornwall region, was one of the most important British historical and portrait painters in his time, says 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 (€920,000). 

“It’s (“The Schoolmistress”) 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.”

Francis Wood’s son, Tom, recalled upon the painting’s return, how it 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. 

Details of the theft

Anthony Imperiale (left), discusses congressional redistricting with Essex Democratic Chairman Harry Lerner in Trenton, 10 April 1972

The FBI reports that the painting was stolen from Earl Wood’s house in July 1969 by three individuals acting under the direction of the late former New Jersey state Sen. Anthony Imperiale.

Imperiale, who died in 1999, gained national attention for advocating a tough stance on crime and organising citizen patrols during the 1967 Newark riots to keep Black protesters out of Italian neighbourhoods.

The attempted theft initially targeted a coin collection, but a burglar alarm prevented the effort. Imperiale, accompanied by local police, arrived at the scene, and the home’s caretaker told the lawmaker that the Opie painting in the home was “priceless”. 

Later that month, the thieves returned to the home and successfully stole the painting.

One of the thieves, Gerald Festa, later confessed during a 1975 trial, implicating Imperiale as the mastermind. He said the thieves had visited Imperiale prior to the theft and were told where to find the painting in Wood’s home. He also testified that Imperiale had the painting.

But the claims against the state lawmaker lacked evidence and he was never charged. 

No charges have been filed by the FBI since the painting’s recovery because all of those believed to have been involved are dead.

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