More than 50 years after a mafia heist, an 18th-century oil painting is back in the hands of its original owner. The Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) returned British artist John Opie’s “The Schoolmistress” (c. 1784) to 96-year-old Francis Wood at his Newark residence on January 11.
In 1969, three men associated with the New Jersey mob — Gerald Festa, Gerald Donnerstag, and Austin Castiglione — attempted to break into the home of Wood’s father, Earl Leroy Wood, in hopes of stealing a coin collection. Police and then-city council member and future senator Anthony Imperiale arrived at the crime scene, where a housekeeper reportedly mentioned the Wood family’s “priceless” painting.
A little over two weeks later, the thieves returned and successfully stole the 18th-century masterpiece. In his 1975 trial, Festa claimed that Imperiale, notorious for his racism and firebrand politics, had ordered the robbery, although the politician was never charged. The painting disappeared. Festa, Donnerstag, Castiglione — each of whom was eventually charged with mafia-related crimes — and Imperiale have all since died.
The FBI believes the painting “remained in the hands of organized crime members” until 1989, when James R. Gullo, who was unaffiliated with the mob, purchased a house in the Southern Florida city of Hallandale that previously belonged to Gambino crime family leader Joseph Covello, Sr. “The Schoolmistress” still hung inside the house.
Gullo eventually moved to Salt Lake City, Utah, and brought Opie’s painting with him. After he died in 2020, an accounting firm tasked with liquidating Gullo’s estate suspected the painting’s dubious origins and alerted the FBI.
The work, another version of which is in the collection of London’s Tate Britain museum, depicts a Cornish schoolroom teacher reading with her students. It showcases Opie’s characteristic employment of chiaroscuro, the light-to-dark painting technique that emerged during the Italian Renaissance and was further developed by Caravaggio and Rembrandt. Opie’s artistic skill earned him the nickname “the Cornish Wonder,” in part because he had never received formal training. He attained a successful career creating history paintings and portraits of upper-class Englishmen including the royal family.
Earl Leroy Wood purchased “The Schoolmistress” for $7,500 during a 1930 trip to London. Wood worked as a physician in World War I, where he received a Purple Heart, and stayed in the Army Medical Corps Reserve long enough to eventually serve in World War II. He died in 1982 at the age of 87. “The Schoolmistress” remains in remarkably good condition and now hangs in the retirement home of Earl Leroy’s son Francis — in the same New Jersey city it was stolen from 54 years ago.