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A Painting Deemed “Priceless,” Pilfered by New Jersey Mobsters in 1969, Has Been Located and Restored to the 96-year-old Son of Its Rightful Owner

Credits: The Independent

After over half a century, an 18th-century British painting by John Opie, titled “The Schoolmistress,” has been returned to the family that originally purchased it for $7,500 during the Great Depression.

The FBI’s Salt Lake City field office announced the recovery of the painting, which had been stolen in 1969 by New Jersey mobsters. Measuring 40 inches by 50 inches, the artwork is the companion piece to a similar work housed in the Tate Britain art gallery in London.

The painting’s intriguing journey involved its theft with the alleged involvement of a former New Jersey lawmaker, after which it circulated among organized crime members for years. Eventually, it found its way to St. George, a southern Utah city.

A Painting Deemed "Priceless," Pilfered by New Jersey Mobsters in 1969, Has Been Located and Restored to the 96-year-old Son of Its Rightful Owner

A Painting Deemed PRICELESS (Credits: Washington Post)

The FBI revealed that a Utah man, who acquired a house in Florida in 1989 from Joseph Covello Sr., a convicted mobster associated with the Gambino family, discovered the artwork included in the sale.

The breakthrough in the case occurred when the buyer passed away in 2020, and a Utah accounting firm tasked with liquidating his estate sought an appraisal for the painting. During this process, it was identified as the likely stolen piece.

Art appraiser Emily Stauffer, based in Salt Lake, remarked on the painting’s appearance, stating, “When I saw it, it certainly appeared to be an 18th Century painting. It was a well-done painting.” Stauffer then contacted Opie expert Viv Hendra in England, who confirmed the theft through a flier.

Dating back to around 1784, the FBI took the painting into custody, awaiting resolution regarding its ownership. On January 11, it was returned to Dr. Francis Wood, 96, of Newark, the son of the original owner, Dr. Earl Wood, who acquired it during the 1930s.

The FBI Special Agent Gary France, involved in the case, marveled at the painting’s extensive history, from its creation in the U.K. to its ownership by various families and its eventual journey to the United States.

John Opie, originating from Cornwall, was a significant British historical and portrait painter during the 18th century. Lucinda Lax, curator of paintings at the Yale Center for British Art, highlighted Opie’s importance in British art history.

Opie’s paintings, which often depicted British royals and scenes from everyday life, have fetched high prices at major auction houses.

The FBI revealed that the theft of “The Schoolmistress” was orchestrated by three individuals at the direction of former New Jersey state Sen. Anthony Imperiale, who passed away in 1999.

Imperiale, a prominent figure in the 1960s, had organized citizen patrols during the Newark riots. The thieves attempted to steal a coin collection from Earl Wood’s house but returned to steal the Opie painting later that month after being thwarted by a burglar alarm.

Although Gerald Festa, one of the thieves, confessed to the burglary in a 1975 trial implicating Imperiale, the claims against the state lawmaker were not sufficiently corroborated, and he was never charged.

No charges have been filed by the FBI since the painting’s recovery, as all individuals believed to be involved are deceased. The painting, now in the possession of Dr. Francis Wood, is undergoing cleaning and appraisal, remaining in remarkably good condition despite its eventful history.

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