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Mobsters Stole this 'Priceless' Painting in 1969. The Family Just Got It Back

FBI agents returned John Opie’s “The Schoolmistress” to Dr. Francis Wood, 96, of Newark, N.J., earlier this month

<p>FBI</p> Dr. Francis Wood, 96, gazes at his John Opie painting, "The Schoolmistress," which was returned to him by FBI agents January 11, 2024.

FBI

Dr. Francis Wood, 96, gazes at his John Opie painting, "The Schoolmistress," which was returned to him by FBI agents January 11, 2024.

After New Jersey mobsters broke into the collector’s home in July 1969, snatching an 18th century painting by British artist John Opie, “The Schoolmistress” allegedly passed through the hands of mobsters and even a state senator before going off the radar for some 50 years.

But earlier this month, Dr. Francis Wood, 96, the Newark, N.J. heir to the missing 40-inch-by-50-inch oil on canvas, received a home delivery from Salt Lake City FBI agents, according to a Friday press release from the FBI field office.

Seated cross-legged in a cushioned chair, Francis Wood smiled as FBI agents unwrapped the long-lost painting in his Newark living room earlier this month, according to photographs of the unveiling provided by the FBI.

<p>FBI</p> FBI agents unveiled the stolen painting to the Wood family at their Newark, N.J. residence earlier this month.

FBI

FBI agents unveiled the stolen painting to the Wood family at their Newark, N.J. residence earlier this month.

The doctor was “just thrilled” to see his father’s painting returned after half a century away, relative David Wood told CBS News in an interview.

No arrests have been made because everyone presumed involved is dead, Sandra Barker of the Salt Lake City field office tells PEOPLE.

The circa-1784 painting is a sister piece to the similarly-named and dated “The School Mistress,” which now hangs in Tate Britain and which is credited for launching Opie’s career.

But while that painting has long hung undisturbed at the London art museum, the New Jersey-housed painting — first purchased by the nonagenarian’s father, Dr. Earl Leroy Wood, during the Great Depression for $7,500 — allegedly exchanged hands between a motley set of criminal characters, according to the FBI.

<p>FBI</p> Dr. Francis Wood, 96, signs paperwork affirming the return of an heirloom stolen from his father by mobsters in 1969.

FBI

Dr. Francis Wood, 96, signs paperwork affirming the return of an heirloom stolen from his father by mobsters in 1969.

Mobsters targeted Earl Leroy Wood’s New Jersey home twice in July 1969.

The first time Gerald Festa, Gerald Donnerstag, and Austin Costiglione broke into the private residence on July 7, the attempted theft of the doctor’s coin collection was foiled by a security alarm, per court documents referenced by the FBI.

Among those to respond to the home in the hours after the attempted burglary was Anthony Imperiale.

<p>AP Photo</p> Anthony Imperiale in Newark, N.J.

AP Photo

Anthony Imperiale in Newark, N.J.

The New Jersey politician had gained notoriety during the 1967 race riots for wielding a baseball bat against Black people and later went on to become a state senator who prioritized the suppression of Black people’s vote, according to his 1999 New York Times obituary, which quoted him as saying “when the Black Panther comes, the white hunter will be waiting.”

At the crime scene, the FBI now says, the politician spoke with the Wood’s estate caretaker and learned that among the collector’s treasures was what the caretaker told him was a “priceless” Opie painting.

<p>FBI</p> A flier noting the theft of "The Schoolmistress" from the Wood's residence and noting a reward for its recovery.

FBI

A flier noting the theft of "The Schoolmistress" from the Wood's residence and noting a reward for its recovery.

The mobster trio — who were later among 31 people belonging to “overlapping rings” who were indicted by federal and Essex County prosecutors for the theft of cash, silver, jewelry, furs and other valuables then worth nearly half a million dollars — returned to the Wood residence some two weeks later.

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This time, the heist was successful and the painting was reported stolen on July 25 of that year.

Festa confessed to the burglary a few years later, while cooperating with prosecutors at Donnerstag’s 1975 murder and burglary trial, telling the court that the caper had been at the behest of Imperiale, who at the time of the trial was a state senator.

<p>FBI</p> A copy of the presale letter of availability addressed to Dr. Earl Leroy Wood from Spink & Son, Ltd., authenticating and describing the quality of the John Opie oil on canvas, dated September 23, 1930.

FBI

A copy of the presale letter of availability addressed to Dr. Earl Leroy Wood from Spink & Son, Ltd., authenticating and describing the quality of the John Opie oil on canvas, dated September 23, 1930.

Festa testified, per a court transcript cited by FBI agents, that the senator had invited the mobsters to his clubhouse and pointed them to the exact location of the painting. The trio took the doctor’s prized painting from his dining room, and Festa testified that the senator was then in possession of the stolen artwork, but the FBI said in its release last week that “the claims against the senator were never sufficiently corroborated and he was never charged.”

However, with “law enforcement pressure,” the FBI said they believe the painting was passed along to another mobster and “remained in the hands of organized crime members” between 1969 and the late 1980s, although the painting’s location during that timespan is officially “unknown.”

Then, per the FBI, in 1989 the painting was included in the presale of a home that had belonged to convicted mobster, Joseph Covello, Sr. – who was known by the street name “Demus” and was connected to the Gambino crime family.

<p>FBI</p> Documents regarding the authenticity of the John Opie painting and confirming the Wood family's rightful ownership of the stolen oil on canvas.

FBI

Documents regarding the authenticity of the John Opie painting and confirming the Wood family's rightful ownership of the stolen oil on canvas.

The man who purchased the mobster’s Hallandale, Fla., home – and who was unaware of the “identity” and “history” of the painting, per the FBI, and was not named in the agency’s press release – later moved the painting to a Utah residence, where it remained until his death in 2020.

The painting’s true ownership was first questioned when it was put up for auction, per the FBI, which was contacted the following year by a trustee of the estate.

The rightful ownership was later determined by a judge in the Fifth Judicial District Court for Washington County, Utah, according to the FBI.

<p>FBI</p> The Wood family posed with the newly-returned John Opie painting, "The Schoolmistress," January 11, 2024.

FBI

The Wood family posed with the newly-returned John Opie painting, "The Schoolmistress," January 11, 2024.

During the two-year federal investigation, FBI agents poured through decades-old documents, including one to the doctor from Spink & Son, Ltd. in London dated September 23, 1930, confirming the sale and noting: “As far as any picture can be said to be perfect after having been painted for 140 years this one certainly is.”

The document shared in the press release by the FBI continues: “It naturally shows the age of the paint, but that is as it should be, and is characteristic and typical of Opie’s technique. I have very rarely seen a picture in finer condition than this one.”

Despite the painting’s notorious handling in recent decades, relative David Wood told CBS News that the painting had just “one or two minor blemishes.”

“For a painting that's 240 years old and has been on a roundabout journey, it's in pretty good shape,” David Wood told the outlet. “Whoever has had their hands on it, I'm thankful they took care of the painting."

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