The FBI’s Salt Lake City field office announced on Friday that an 18th-century British artwork that was taken by New Jersey mobsters in 1969 has been returned to the family that paid $7,500 for it during the Great Depression, more than 50 years after it was originally taken.
The 40-by-50-inch “The Schoolmistress” painting by John Opie is the twin piece of a related piece kept at the Tate Britain art gallery in London.
The piece, according to authorities, was taken for years by organised crime members after it was obtained with the assistance of a former New Jersey senator. Eventually, it made its way to St. George in southern Utah. According to the FBI, the picture was part of the sale when a Utah man bought a Florida home in 1989 from Joseph Covello Sr., a convicted gangster connected to the Gambino family.
The painting was likely the stolen item when it was appraised for a Utah accounting firm that was trying to sell the buyer’s property after he passed away in 2020, according to the FBI.
The artwork, which was purchased by Dr. Earl Wood in the 1930s, was given back to his son Dr. Francis Wood, 96, of Newark, on January 11 after the FBI had held it until the ownership dispute was resolved. The picture dates to approximately 1784.
“This piece of art, what a history it’s had,” said FBI Special Agent Gary France, who worked on the case. “It traveled all through the U.K. when it was first painted, and owned by quite a few families in the U.K. And then it travels overseas to the United States and is sold during the Great Depression and then stolen by the mob and recovered by the FBI decades later. It’s quite amazing.”
According to Lucinda Lax, curator of paintings at the Yale Centre for British Art in New Haven, Connecticut, Opie, a native of the Cornwall region, was one of the most significant British historical and portrait painters of his day. Major auction houses like Sotheby’s and Christie’s have sold his paintings; in 2007, one of them was purchased for about $1 million.
Opie depicted members of the elite and British royals frequently. However, he also portrayed everyday settings, such in “The Schoolmistress,” which features a group of young students seated around an elderly teacher who is reading a book at a table.
“It’s 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.”
The FBI claims that three men acting under the supervision of the late state senator from New Jersey, Anthony Imperiale, stole the picture from Earl Wood’s home in 1999. In the 1960s, political firebrand Imperiale—a Newark municipal councilman as well—came to national attention as a spokesperson for tougher law enforcement. During the summer of 1967 riots in Newark, he was also a contentious figure, having organised citizen patrols to keep Black protestors out of Italian neighbourhoods.
The burglar alarm, according to the authorities, prevented the intruders from entering the property in July 1969 when they attempted to take a collection of coins. The attempted burglary was stopped by Imperiale and local police, and the caretaker of the house informed the legislator that the Opie painting inside was “priceless,” according to the FBI.
Later that month, the men broke into the residence again and took the painting, according to the FBI.
Gerald Festa, one of the burglars, eventually admitted to the crime during the 1975 accomplice trial, claiming the three had been working for Imperiale. Festa stated that the burglars had been to Imperiale before the robbery and that the politician had given them directions to where in Wood’s house to find the picture, according to the FBI. Festa attested that Imperiale possessed the painting as well.
France noted that the state member was never indicted and that the allegations against him were not adequately supported.
Since the painting’s recovery, the FBI has not brought any charges because, according to France, everyone thought to have involved has passed away. Before they died, the three guys who had stolen the painting were found guilty of additional crimes connected to the mob, he claimed.