Francis Wood was sitting in the passenger seat of his son’s car when his phone rang with a call from an unknown number. It was the FBI, the voice on the line told the 94-year-old retired doctor.
“Hang up, Dad!” Tom Wood recalled telling his father that day in January 2022. “It’s a scam.”
It turned out to be anything but. The caller was a special agent who had news that felt “utterly improbable and astonishing in every way, shape and form,” said Wood’s daughter, Penelope Kulko: A priceless piece of art stolen from the family had resurfaced more than 50 years after the crime.
Truth be told, the events that led to its recovery seemed stranger than any scammer’s fiction. “The Schoolmistress,” a late 18th century work from the renowned British portrait artist John Opie, spent more than three decades hanging in the Woodses’ dining room until it was stolen in 1969 by three New Jersey Mafiosi, allegedly under the direction of a firebrand state senator. For years, the painting embarked on a clandestine journey through the criminal underworld – only to be found after an accounting firm liquidated the estate of a recently deceased client who purchased a convicted mobster’s Florida home.
Though “The Schoolmistress” is now tied to an era when the mafia reigned supreme in New Jersey, thanks to the headline-making heist, its history stretches back another 200 years to the time of King George III. The oil painting from 1784 captures a slice of daily life: a woman and boy engrossed in reading as other schoolchildren look on.
It was an early work by Opie, who was nicknamed the “Cornish Wonder” and rose to fame for his ability to produce detail-rich portraits despite lacking formal training. His chiaroscuro technique, which uses light and darkness for depth and has been compared to Rembrandt’s and Caravaggio’s, quickly won the admiration of King George III and other British nobles.
The stolen artwork is another version of a painting on display in London’s Tate Britain museum. In 1788, it was purchased from Opie by the Earl of Stamford, George Harry Grey, who passed it down to a chain of his descendants. The painting, which was last publicly displayed in the 1857 “Art Treasures” exhibition, then wound up at a Christie’s auction, where it was sold to a London-based art dealer.
That’s how Wood’s parents ran across it in 1930, while on a trip to London during “the height of the Great Depression,” the 96-year-old said. The couple, a physician and a member of the Newark Museum’s board of trustees, bought the painting for about $7,500 and took it on their transatlantic journey aboard the S.S. Paris, according to the FBI. In their New Jersey home, the painting hung across from the dining table for 39 years, filling three generations with memories.
“We all had Sunday dinner at our grandparents’ house every other week,” Kulko, 64, said. “My seat was facing the painting and I just remember it so well. I saw it every other Sunday for 10 years and my father saw it there ever since he was 3. It’s a connection to his parents.”
The chain of events that would lead to the painting’s disappearance began on July 7, 1969. That day, Gerald Festa, Gerald Donnerstag and Austin Castiglione – all tied to the New Jersey mob – tried breaking into the Wood home in search of a rare coin collection, according to an FBI affidavit. A burglar alarm drove them away, and Anthony Imperiale, a Newark City Council member who would go on to serve in the New Jersey state Senate, responded along with the police.
According to the affidavit, the home caretaker mentioned to Imperiale that the Opie painting was “priceless.” Just 18 days later, the mobster trio came back to the home – this time running off with the artwork.
In 1975, Festa admitted to stealing the painting, testifying in a trial over a burglary ring that Imperiale orchestrated it. He said the three men had stopped at the politician’s clubhouse on the way to the Woodses’ home.
“Now we know exactly where it is. Let’s go get it,” Festa claimed Donnerstag said after their meeting, the New York Times reported in 1975.
Imperiale – notorious for founding of a vigilante white self-defense group during the 1967 Newark riots – denied Festa’s claims, telling the Times, “What he thinks and what the truth is are two different things.” With the statute of limitations behind him and Festa’s claims never sufficiently corroborated, the New Jersey state senator was never charged, according to the FBI affidavit. Festa was placed in the witness protection program for testifying against the mob; Donnerstag was convicted of murder; Castiglione pleaded guilty to the burglary. The four men have all since died.
“The Schoolmistress” remained lost to the criminal underworld for over five decades – until FBI Special Agent Gary France got a knock on the door of his Utah office in December 2021: an accounting firm that was liquidating James R. Gullo’s estate said they had a painting that appeared to be stolen.
“I was really skeptical at first because, as you can imagine, in our FBI offices we get people that walk in all the time with some pretty crazy stories,” France said. But as soon as he laid eyes on the painting and read a report from an art appraiser, France said he could tell the painting had a shady past.
Looking up at old news stories and police records from over the years – some of which were deep in the agencies’ archives – confirmed his suspicions. Frances found the painting had somehow ended up in the hands of Joseph Covello Sr., a reputed lieutenant of the Gambino crime family. In 1989, Gullo, who was not related to the mob, bought Covello’s Florida home. The house came with a slew of furniture and assets – including the long-lost “Schoolmistress.” Oblivious to the painting’s past, Gullo brought it from Florida to Utah when he moved there.
“It just so happened that the painting’s last owner before it was purchased by this good faith purchaser was also a convicted mobster,” France said.
How the painting ended up in the Florida home in the first place is still a mystery – but the FBI agent believes mobsters passed it on like a hot potato.
“For these types of works of art that are as well-known and considered priceless, there really isn’t a legitimate market that you could sell these on,” France said. “So pieces of work like this are just handed from one criminal to the next or sold on the black market.”
When he reached out to the Wood family with his discovery, “it took them some time to digest it.” For months on end, Wood’s children pored over old photos and documents to prove their family’s rightful ownership. Luckily, they had the “old and yellowed and kind of crunchy papers” documenting the painting’s purchase in 1930, Kulko said. A judge in the Fifth Judicial District Court for Washington County, Utah, ruled it was theirs.
Earlier this month, the painting was tucked inside a box and shipped to New Jersey from Utah – and France was there to witness the reaction as the family gathered to rediscover what for so long had seemed like a lost treasure.
“I’ve had the opportunity to work all over the United States, and I never worked a case like this,” said France, who was born three years after the painting was stolen and plans to retire soon. “And so it’s a great way to cap the end of my career and definitely it’s in the top five of all my cases as far as what I’ll remember when I leave.”
As for the painting, Wood said it’s now hanging in his retirement home – next to another Opie painting the family bought in the 1980s as “placeholder” while awaiting the return of “The Schoolmistress.”