More Than 50 Years After Theft, Stolen John Opie Painting Recovered and Returned to Rightful Owner
The Painting Allegedly Remained in Criminal Hands for Decades
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.
An original John Opie painting believed to have been stolen by mobsters in July 1969 has been returned to its rightful owner after a two-year investigation by the FBI’s Salt Lake City Field Office.
On January 11, 2024, FBI Special Agent Gary France presented the painting, titled “The Schoolmistress”, to Dr. Francis Wood, 96, at his home in Newark, New Jersey, after a judge in the Fifth Judicial District Court for Washington County, Utah, resolved the question of ownership. The piece, painted circa 1784, is oil on canvas and approximately 40 inches by 50 inches. This recovered original Opie painting has a sister painting housed in the Tate Britain art gallery in London.
At left, Special Agent Gary France watches as Dr. Francis Wood signs an FBI property release form for the recovered Opie painting. At right, France and Wood talk during a presentation in Newark, New Jersey, where the stolen Opie painting was returned to Wood as the rightful owner.
The FBI was contacted in December 2021 by a Washington County, Utah, accounting firm acting as a trustee for a client who died in 2020. The client had hired the firm to liquidate his residences and personal property. While appraising the painting for auction, it was discovered to likely be an original Opie stolen in 1969 from a private residence of 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.
Wood’s father, Dr. Earl Leroy Wood, purchased the painting during the Great Depression in the 1930s for $7,500. During the investigation, the FBI discovered multiple criminal subjects claimed responsibility for the painting’s theft.
According to court documents, on July 7, 1969, three men, identified as Gerald Festa, Gerald Donnerstag, and Austin Costiglione attempted to steal a coin collection from Dr Wood’s residence but failed because of a burglar alarm. The police and then-New Jersey State Senator Anthony Imperiale responded to the attempted burglary. The home’s caretaker mentioned to Senator Imperale that the 1784 Opie painting was “priceless.”
On July 25, 1969, the same three men returned to Dr. Wood’s home and stole the Opie painting. During Donnerstag’s trial in 1975, Festa testified and confessed to the burglary, saying they had acted under the direction of Senator Imperiale. Festa testified that before the burglary, the three men visited Imperiale’s “clubhouse” and were told exactly where the painting was in Dr. Wood’s home. Festa testified that Imperiale had the painting. However, the claims against the senator were never sufficiently corroborated and he was never charged.
It is believed that law enforcement pressure resulted in the painting’s transfer to another mobster. The painting’s location between 1969 and the late 1980s is unknown but the FBI believes it remained in the hands of organized crime members.
The photo at left shows a historical flyer that shows the John Opie painting, "The Schoolmistress", and lists a reward for its recovery. The center photo shows a copy of a presale letter of availability, dated September 23, 1930, from Spink & Son, London, describing the authenticity and quality of the John Opie painting, "The Schoolmistress." The photo at right shows a copy of documents related to the Opie painting stolen from Dr. Earl Wood in 1969.
Twenty years later, in 1989, the Utah accounting firm’s deceased client purchased a home in Hallandale, Florida from convicted mobster, Joseph Covello, Sr. The Opie painting was included in the sale of the home without the client’s knowledge of its identity or history. The client eventually sold his Florida home and moved the painting to St. George, Utah, where it remained until his death in 2020.
“It was an honor playing a role in recovering a significant piece of art and culture, and reuniting a family with its stolen heritage,” Special Agent 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.”
FBI Salt Lake City would like to thank Kris Braunberger and HintonBurdick CPAs & Advisors for bringing this matter to our attention.
We would also like to thank the Wood family, the FBI’s legal attaché office in London, and the UK Metropolitan Police Art & Antiquities Unit for their valuable assistance determining the history and validity of the painting, and FBI Newark for assistance facilitating the painting’s return to Dr. Wood.