Painting stolen by N.J. mobsters in 1969 ended up in St. George. The FBI just returned it to its rightful owner.

“The Schoolmistress” is the work of John Opie, who painted it in 1784.

(FBI) 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 18th century painting stolen in 1969 — a theft tied to mobsters and linked to a New Jersey politician — has been returned to its rightful owner after decades in the possession of a Utah man.

“This is one of the most unique and intriguing cases I’ve had the opportunity to work,” said FBI special agent Gary France. “We get inundated with quite a few people that walk in with some pretty fantastical stories, and so … I was a little skeptical at first.”

And “investigating a crime that occurred over 50 years ago was quite an interesting challenge,” he added.

The painting, titled “The Schoolmistress,” is the work of English painter John Opie (1761-1807) and dates to about 1784. Earl Leroy Wood bought the 40 inch by 50 inch oil on canvas in London sometime in the 1930s for $7,500.

Decades later, according to court documents, three men — who “were all involved in organized crime,” France said — tried to steal a coin collection from Wood’s home on July 7, 1969. But Gerald Festa, Gerald Donnerstag and Austin Costiglione were thwarted by a burglar alarm.

Police and then-Newark City Councilman Anthony Imperiale responded to the burglary, and the home’s caretaker reportedly told Imperiale that the Opie painting was “priceless.”

(The painting has not been appraised, but, according to France, it is worth “a substantial amount of money.” Another version of the painting is hanging in the Tate Britain art gallery in London.)

(FBI) Siblings Tom Wood and Penelope Kulko assist Special Agent Gary France in unveiling the recovered painting to Dr. Francis Wood.

Stolen in 1969

Eighteen days later, Festa, Donnerstag and Costiglione returned to Woods’ home and stole the painting. Testifying as a witness at Donnerstag’s trial in 1975, Festa confessed to the burglary and said that he and the two other men had acted under the direction of Imperiale — who was elected to the New Jersey Assembly in 1971 and the state senate in 1973. And, Festa added, Imperiale had the painting.

According to the FBI, Imperiale (who died in 1999) was never charged because Festa’s testimony was never sufficiently corroborated. “Well, he certainly was implicated by others,” France said. No one is facing any charges in the art theft — because everyone involved in the case has died.

The FBI believes that because of Festa’s testimony, the painting was “transferred to another mobster.” The FBI doesn’t know where the painting was between 1969 and the late 1980s, but it believes “it remained in the hands of organized crime members.”

The painting resurfaced in 1989 when James R. Gullo bought the Hallandale Beach, Florida, home of convicted mobster Joseph Covello, Sr., a reputed lieutenant in the Gambino crime family. The purchase included its contents — including the Opie painting. Gullo, unaware that the painting had been stolen, moved it to his home in St. George.

France called Gullo a “good-faith purchaser” of the home and the painting. And he pointed to the purchase agreement, which includes “just a vague statement” about a “large painting, hanging on the wall.”

(FBI) Special Agent Gary France, second from right, joins Dr. Francis Wood and Wood’s children next to the John Opie painting that was stolen from Wood’s parents' home in 1969.

It’s a stolen painting

After Gullo’s death in 2020, HintonBurdick CPAs & Advisors, which was settling Gullo’s estate, hired a firm to liquidate his belongings. While appraising the estate, the firm discovered the Opie painting and realized it was stolen. The painting was handed over to the FBI, which contacted Wood’s 96-year-old son, Francis.

“He was completely shocked. Very skeptical that we had actually recovered” the painting, France said. “It was utter shock from the family. Because … so many decades had passed that everyone involved in their family thought that this would never be recovered. Ever.”

Family members didn’t think they had any documentation to prove ownership. But, France said, several months into the investigation Francis Wood’s children were “digging through some old filing cabinets that Francis had forgotten that he had even retained from his parents’ home. And they found a file right on the top that said, ‘Stolen Opie painting,’” which was full of documents. “It was like striking gold,” France said.

“I’ve been told by the Wood family that it has just been a great journey for them through history to rediscover their own ancestry. And I’m sure that Dr. Earl Wood and his wife are smiling down on their posterity at this point of having this painting back in their life.”

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

Returning the painting

After a judge in Utah’s 5th District Court ruled that the painting belongs to Wood’s heirs, France traveled to Newark, N.J., and presented it to Francis Wood. His four children were with him when the painting was unveiled.

“It was wonderful to be able to work through the legalities at the end and then deliver that painting to them in Newark,” France said. “And to see the joy on the Wood family’s faces as we reunited this long lost piece of property and a real piece of their family history back to them.”

The 240-year-old painting is in “incredible shape,” France said. “There’s a couple of flecks of paint that have fallen off on the very bottom left corner of the painting. But other than that, it’s in pristine condition.”

And the FBI agents said even he is surprised by that. “It’s been held by individuals such as Mr. Gullo, [who] didn’t really understand what he had. … It was handled with some care, but probably not the level of care that somebody would care for a priceless painting.”

(FBI) Special Agent Gary France watches as Dr. Francis Wood signs an FBI property release form for the recovered Opie painting.