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Tuesday, April 23, 2024

St. George recovers rare painting stolen by the mob 50 years ago

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SALT LAKE CITY — After a two-year investigation, a group ‍of accountants, art appraisers and ​agents from the ‍FBI in Utah and beyond were able to‍ reunite a painting, stolen over 50 years ago, with its rightful owners.

Dr. Francis Wood, 96, grew ‌up in a house in New Jersey. He was 3 when his father, prominent Newark physician Dr. ⁤Earl Leroy Wood, brought a large oil painting home ​during ‍the Great Depression, according to the FBI.‌ Overlooking their dining room table, the canvas showed a poor woman teaching a group​ of children to read.‌ It’s a scene of simple beauty, showing the honest dignity of‍ a peasant world.

The artist, John Opie, ⁣painted “The Schoolmistress” ⁣in 1784, and ⁣experts at the Tate ‌Britain Art​ Gallery, where ⁢a collection of Opie’s works are held, said he modeled the scene‌ off his own childhood, and the central figure off his mother.

The original bill of sale from John Mitchell ⁢& Sons Fine Paintings‌ in London shows ‌that Earl Wood purchased the painting in 1930⁤ for $7,500 (around $130,000 in today’s money). It remained in Francis Wood’s thoughts as he grew up and moved away, and he continued to think about⁤ that striking image. His ‍son, Tom Wood, told KSL.com he purchased a smaller painting by Opie, “Two Little Girls,” to remind him of his childhood home and the feeling of that piece.

When ⁤Francis Wood married and had children,‍ the painting hung over their⁢ weekly Sunday meals at his father, Earl​ Wood’s, house. Then, in 1969, his parents’ house was broken⁣ into while they were abroad in Europe, and the beloved painting disappeared for the next 50 years.

On July 7, 1969, three men with mob connections, according to the FBI, tried to break into Earl Wood’s⁢ house to steal a valuable coin collection. Gerald Festa, Gerald⁣ Donnerstand, and Austin Costiglione fled when the ⁤burglar alarm went off, but hid nearby to watch as the ⁢police responded, according to a report in the New York Daily News.

According to the later testimony⁣ of Festa, state Sen. Anthony Imperiale, also allegedly connected to the local mafia, arrived at ‍the house‍ in a “big black Cadillac” at the same time ‍as police. Imperiale was ⁢a supposed friend⁣ of the Woods family, and heard about the incident on‍ a police radio he kept ‌in the ‌car.

While inside, a caretaker​ allegedly pointed out the painting to Imperiale, claiming that it was⁣ priceless, the Daily News article said.

According to Festa, Imperiale summoned​ the three accused thieves to his club, and told where the Opie painting was‌ and its significant value. On July 25, 1969, “The Schoolmistress” was stolen from the Wood family home.

Festa admitted to the crime in a later trial, and was ⁢found guilty along with his other two accomplices. He implicated Imperiale, who was never charged, and by that time the painting had vanished, according ⁤to the FBI.

Tom Wood was 14 when the painting was stolen and remembers the impact that theft made. “My⁣ father didn’t⁢ ever think he would see it again,” he said.

In 2021, Francis Wood received⁤ a call from the Newark Museum. It was investigating⁤ a painting, believed to be the missing Opie, that had turned up during the ⁢liquidation of an estate in Utah in St. ​George.

He remained skeptical and waited for news. Six months later, Tom Wood remembers riding ‍in a car when his‍ father got a call. “This⁣ is the ⁢FBI?” Frances Wood said into the phone, pulling over. Tom Wood remembered saying, “Dad, hang ⁤up, that’s a scam call!” It was actually FBI special agent Gary France.

France found that the painting had been in the Hallandale, Florida, residence of Joseph Covello Sr., a reputed lieutenant of the Gambino crime family, according to the FBI. The house, along with the painting, was sold in the late ’80s when Covello faced federal charges for organized crime.

In​ June 2021, a Utah accounting firm in Washington County was liquidating the assets of the man who purchased that property from the Covellos, and had passed away the year previous. ⁢Kris Braunberger, partner at the Hinton Burdick accounting firm, asked an appraiser to examine the work. He was surprised ⁣by Dodworth and Stauffer’s report: “Very good condition for age and type, minor scattered losses in lower left corner ‌… the painting was never recovered by law enforcement.”

Aaron Smith and his team of art appraisers⁢ were able to identify the painting because Vivian ‌John ⁢Hendra, ​an Opie scholar in the U.K., had​ saved a​ notice from the Newark ‍Museum‌ that offered a reward for the missing artwork, an appraiser ⁤said. That link allowed ⁣the art to be verified as the authentic missing piece. ​Hendra passed away‍ in​ 2021, with the knowledge that​ the ⁢piece had been found.

On Jan. 11, 2024, France presented​ the ​painting to Francis Wood. His‍ son, when asked what’s​ next for the artwork, said, “My father wants to be able to look at it. For the near future, that’s the goal.”

It is currently being cleaned and appraised. Long term, Tom Wood said, they will be interested to find a⁣ home⁢ for the painting at a museum, possibly in London at the Tate Britain Art Gallery, where a sister painting to ⁢”The Schoolmistress” is kept.

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1 COMMENT

  1. Good punctuation and grammar, agree.

    Fantastic news! It’s incredible to see justice prevail and valuable works of art returned to their rightful place.

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