Rare British painting that was stolen by mobsters recovered in Utah, returned to NJ family

Jan 26, 2024, 10:24 AM | Updated: Jan 27, 2024, 1:26 pm

SALT LAKE CITY — An original John Opie painting that was stolen over 50 years ago by mobsters in New Jersey has been returned to its rightful owner after a two-year investigation by the FBI’s Salt Lake City Field Office.

The painting, titled “The Schoolmistress,” was painted circa 1784 and has a sister painting housed in the Tate Britain art gallery in London. It is oil on canvas and measures approximately 40 inches by 50 inches.

FBI agents were contacted in December 2021 by an accounting firm in Washington County, Utah, that was hired to liquidate the residences and personal property of a client.

Among the items was the painting. While appraising the artwork, it was discovered to likely be an original Opie that was stolen in 1969 from the Wood family in New Jersey. Special Agent France of the FBI Salt Lake City’s St. George Resident Agency accepted custody of the painting based on the alleged theft.

“It was an honor playing a role in recovering a significant piece of art and culture, and reuniting a family with its stolen heritage,” France said. “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.”

Dr. Francis Wood, 96, admires the John Opie painting, “The Schoolmistress”, stolen from his parents’ Newark, New Jersey home in 1969 and recently returned to him as the rightful owner. (FBI)

Painting’s purchase and theft

Earl Leroy Wood purchased the painting in 1930 for $7,500 — approximately $131,000 in 2022 dollars — through London auction house Spink & Son.

Penelope Wood Kulko and Tom Wood, Earl Leroy Wood’s grandchildren, said their grandfather proudly hung the painting at his home for his grandchildren to enjoy.

“I sat across from it at Sunday dinner every year until I was 10 years old,” Kulko said.

“It was a painting that was part of my growing up,” Tom Wood added.

A copy of a presale letter of availability, dated Sept. 23, 1930, from Spink & Son, London, describing the authenticity and quality of the John Opie painting, “The Schoolmistress.” (FBI)

According to court documents, on July 7, 1969, three men, identified as Gerald Festa, Gerald Donnerstag, and Austin Castiglione, attempted to steal a coin collection from Wood’s New Jersey home. The trio was stopped by a burglar alarm.

Police and then-state Sen. Anthony Imperiale responded to the attempted burglary. During that response, the home’s caregiver allegedly told Imperale the painting was “priceless.”

Eighteen days later, the same men returned and stole the Opie painting. Festa confessed to the theft during Donnerstag’s trial and said they were acting under the direction of Imperiale. Festa testified that they met in Imperale’s “clubhouse” and were told exactly where the painting was.

Copy of a historical flyer that shows the John Opie painting, “The Schoolmistress,” and lists a reward for its recovery. (FBI)

Festa also testified that Imperiale had the painting, but those claims were never corroborated.

After the case, assistant prosecutor Glenn Goldberg said, “The state has feeling, and even a strong suspicion, that he himself (Mr. Imperiale) was somehow involved.” Even if he was, Essex County Prosecutor Joseph Lordi said the statute of limitations had expired and the only people who could connect Imperiale to the crime were Donnerstag and Castiglione — and neither of them talked.

Imperiale was never charged in connection to the burglary.

FBI agents believe law enforcement pressure resulted in the painting’s transfer to another mobster, and the painting’s location between 1969 and the late 1980s is unknown.

However, in 1975, a mobster from the Castiglione crime ring admitted to the burglary.

“The one that I remember, and Tom remembers, is the guy who is referred to as ‘Chicken Delight’ … that’s just hilarious, but apparently, there were three burglars,” Kulko said.

Painting resurfaces in Florida

In 1989, the client of the Utah accounting firm bought a home in Hallandale, Florida, from convicted mobster Joshep Covello Sr. The Opie painting was included in the sale, but the client did not know its history or value.

The client eventually sold the home and moved, with the painting, to St. George, Utah, where he resided until he died in 2020.

“He didn’t know it’s providence or anything like that, and maybe he didn’t care, but he took care of it,” Penelope Wood Kulko said.

After the painting’s history and validity were assessed, France accompanied the painting to Newark, New Jersey, where it was returned to 96-year-old Francis Wood, son of Earl Leroy Wood.

The FBI thanked the Wood family, the FBI’s legal attaché office in London, and the UK Metropolitan Police Art & Antiquities Unit for their valuable assistance in determining the history and validity of the painting, and FBI Newark for assistance in facilitating the painting’s return to the Wood family.

Contributing: Garna Mejia, KSL TV

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Rare British painting that was stolen by mobsters recovered in Utah, returned to NJ family