Stolen by Mobsters 54 Years Ago, This 18th-Century Painting Was Just Returned to Its Rightful Owners

Authorities presented “The Schoolmistress” to 96-year-old Francis Wood, the owner’s son, last month

Large painting in a frame in front of a man with white hair
Measuring 40 by 50 inches, The Schoolmistress (circa 1784) had belonged to physician Earl Leroy Wood. Officials returned it to his son, Francis Wood, on January 11. FBI

In 1969, thieves stole an 18th-century painting from a home in New Jersey. Now, 54 years later, the piece has been returned to its rightful owner, the FBI announced on Friday.

The artwork in question is The Schoolmistress, which the English artist John Opie painted around 1784. Measuring 40 by 50 inches, the oil-on-canvas piece depicts a woman teaching children in a classroom in Cornwall, England, where Opie was born in 1761. A sister painting is on display at the Tate Britain gallery in London.

In the 1930s, a Newark physician named Earl Leroy Wood and his wife bought The Schoolmistress for $7,500 on a trip to London, according to the Washington Post’s María Luisa Paúl. It hung in the couple’s dining room for decades.

Older man sitting in a chair talking to younger man in a suit
Gary France (right), a special agent with the FBI, helped return the painting to Francis Wood (left). FBI

Last month, after a two-year investigation involving the FBI and the Metropolitan Police in London, authorities returned the painting to Earl Leroy Wood’s son, Francis Wood, who is 96.

“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,” says Gary France, an FBI special agent, in a statement.

The saga began on July 7, 1969, when Gerald Festa, Gerald Donnerstag and Austin Castiglione tried to steal a valuable coin collection from the Wood family home but tripped the alarm. They returned a few weeks later, on July 25, and nabbed The Schoolmistress.

Law enforcement officials know this because Festa eventually admitted to stealing the painting during a 1975 trial, according to the FBI. He told the court that the trio was acting under orders of Anthony Imperiale, a New Jersey state senator, though police never corroborated that claim or charged Imperiale in connection with the theft. (Imperiale died in 1999; Festa, Donnerstag and Castiglione have also since died.)

Meanwhile, The Schoolmistress was nowhere to be found.

The painting finally resurfaced in 2021 while an accounting firm in Utah was preparing to liquidate the belongings of a deceased client named James R. Gullo, reports the Washington Post. Staffers were getting The Schoolmistress appraised for auction when they realized it was most likely stolen. They contacted the FBI, which took possession of the painting.

How did the artwork end up in Utah? In 1989, Gullo had purchased a house in Hallandale, Florida, that had belonged to Joseph Covello Sr., a convicted mobster with ties to the Gambino crime family, reports Matthew Brown of the Associated Press (AP).

Gullo, who died in 2020, had no knowledge of the painting’s history or ties to any organized crime groups. Later, when he sold the Florida house and moved to St. George, Utah, he took the work with him.

Some questions about the case remain a mystery. For instance, how the piece made its way from New Jersey to Florida is unclear, but investigators think it was passed around through various organized crime groups.

“For these types of works of art that are as well-known and considered priceless, there really isn’t a legitimate market that you could sell these on,” France tells the Washington Post. “So pieces of work like this are just handed from one criminal to the next or sold on the black market.”

Now that the Wood family has The Schoolmistress back, they’re having it cleaned and appraised, according to the AP.

“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,” says Tom Wood, Francis Wood’s son, to the AP. “Whoever has had their hands on it, I’m thankful they took care of the painting.”

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