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Painting Stolen Over 50 Years Ago by Mobsters Is Finally Recovered

There are many art heists that remain unsolved, but through chance and research one was recently solved. In 1969, Dr. Earl Leroy Wood's Hoboken home was burglarized and a precious 18th-century artwork was stolen. The painting—known as the The Schoolmistress—is by the English painter John Opie. It depicts a woman hunched over, helping children with their work. For decades, the painting was lost, somewhere in the hands of organized crime. Yet in 2020, the death of a collector who had purchased the painting without knowledge of its sordid past brought the painting to light once more. The FBI was able to reunite it with the descendants of its original owners.

The Schoolmistress was painted in England in 1784 by Opie, a young prodigy known for his portraits and scenes of rural life. It was acquired by Dr. Wood in the 1930s for $7,500. In the summer of 1969, mobsters Gerald Festa, Gerald Donnerstag, and Austin Costiglione robbed his residence, stealing the painting. In later testimony in court, they blamed their actions on directives of a former New Jersey State Senator, Anthony Imperiale (a controversial figure, who was never truly connected or charged to the stolen painting). The painting seems to have resided with those involved in organized crime for decades.

In 1989, the death of mobster Joseph Covello, Sr. moved the painting once more. It was purchased in Florida by a gentleman who was unaware of its sordid past. However, upon that man's death in Utah in 2020, his estate was reviewed by trustees. The firm in charge flagged the painting as the long-lost work and contacted the FBI. With some work on behalf of the Woods family to prove their own claim, the painting's true history was established. It was recently reunited with Dr. Francis Wood, Earl's son who is now 96.

“It was an honor playing a role in recovering a significant piece of art and culture, and reuniting a family with its stolen heritage,” FBI Special Agent France said in a statement. “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.”

An 18th-century painting by John Opie, titled The Schoolmistress, was stolen by mobsters in the 1960s.

It was recently rediscovered, and the FBI returned it to the son of its long-lost owner.

h/t: [CNN]

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Madeleine Muzdakis

Madeleine Muzdakis is a Contributing Writer at My Modern Met and a historian of early modern Britain & the Atlantic world. She holds a BA in History and Mathematics from Brown University and an MA in European & Russian Studies from Yale University. Madeleine has worked in archives and museums for years with a particular focus on photography and arts education. When she isn’t writing, she enjoys hiking, film photography, and studying law while cuddling with her cat Georgia.
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