A ‘priceless’ English painting has been returned to its owners after being stolen by mobsters more than five decades ago.
‘The Schoolmistress’, one of the creations by notable artist John Opie, was stolen from 96-year-old Francis Wood’s home, in Newark in 1969.
After a two-year investigation by FBI agents and London detectives, a judge ruled that the painting belonged to Wood and was his rightful property.
Special Agent Gary France said it was an honor being able to recover and reunite such a significant piece of art with its family.
David Wood’s son told media outlets that the painting has a couple of minor blemishes but is in otherwise good condition for a painting its age. He is also grateful for how it was taken care of by whoever had it previously.
The painting, which dates back to 1784, measures approximately 40′ x 50 and depicts an elderly woman teaching a group of children in what appears to be an austere classroom.
A similar painting by the artist, which is currently being displayed at London’s Tate Britain Gallery, launched his career in 1784 after it was displayed at London’s Royal Academy.
Opie, one of the most notable artists of his era, went on to create several historical artworks and was commissioned by the royal family for numerous portraits.
In 2007, one of his paintings sold for approximately USD 580,000 at an auction.
Since it was stolen from Wood’s home, The Schoolmistress’ was believed to be in the hands of various crime gangs. It wasn’t until 2021 that the artwork was rediscovered after a Utah-based accounting firm found it among the property of one of their clients, who had passed away the previous year.
The deceased man, who has not been identified, allegedly purchased a house from Joseph Covello Sr. a convicted mobster, in 1989. The painting, unknown to the buyer, had been in the house, where it remained until it was brought to Utah.
The firm eventually went on to appraise the artwork for an auction and realized it was an original piece by Opie – one that had been stolen from Wood’s home back in 1969.. They subsequently contacted the FBI.
Wood’s father, Earl Leroy, had purchased the painting back in the 1930s for $7,500.
According to court documents from that period, Gerald Donnerstag, Gerald Festa, and Austin Castiglione, all of whom have since died, had broken into the Wood residence to steal a collection of coins but had fled after triggering an alarm.
The trio eventually went back to the home on July 25, 1969, and stole the painting.
During a trial in 1975, Festa confessed that they had taken the painting and that they were acting under directions from the then-state senator Anthony Imperiale, who had passed away in the late 90s.
According to Festa, the trio had gone to Imperiale’s clubhouse, where they were told exactly where the artwork was being held. Despite that, the claims have never been corroborated.