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HomeNewsFBI Returns Painting Stolen By Mobsters Over 50 Years Ago to Rightful...

FBI Returns Painting Stolen By Mobsters Over 50 Years Ago to Rightful Owner 

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“The Schoolmistress” Painting
Source: ADAM021913551/X

Finally, a centuries-old painting has returned to its owner more than 50 years after it was reported missing. It was 1969 when three burglars invaded the home of the respected Dr. Earl Leroy Wood. One of the items that went out with the trio from his New Jersey home was a 50-inch oil painting. 

This painting was more valuable than the robbers thought. It was “The Schoolmistress” by English painter John Opie. The work of art, older than the doctor himself, had been created far back in 1784. 

One of the burglars had confessed in 1975 to stealing the painting. Gerald Festa admitted to robbing Dr. Wood alongside the two other men who had links with crime syndicates. Festa’s confession was documented in court. 

In 1989, the painting resurfaced at the home of Joseph Covello, Sr. Covello, a notorious member of the Gambino family mob who had been convicted for organized crime activities. 

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Covello’s home was up for sale, along with various items in it, including the painting. An individual bought the painting without knowing its significance. However, the new buyer, James R. Gullo, died in 2020.

An accounting firm, whose job was to liquidate the dead owner’s assets, found the painting. The firm then hired an appraiser who revealed how valuable the painting was. “When I saw it, it certainly appeared to be an 18th-century painting,” the appraiser, Emily Stauffer, said. “It was a well-done painting,” she said. 

The FBI, who had been on the search for the painting, later got involved and collaborated with the Wood family. The family then launched a search for the documentation, which took two years to find.  

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After proving ownership of the work, the FBI then facilitated the transfer of custody to the family. Wood’s son, 96-year-old Dr. Francis Wood, took possession of the painting. 

Gary France, an FBI Special Agent who led the case, was pleased to be part of the painting’s return. He admitted to being skeptical about the case when he got wind of it. 

“In a world where criminal investigations often leave scars, it was a rare joy to be a part of a win-win case,” he said. He described the outcome as a “triumph for history, justice, and the Wood family.” 

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“I was born in 1971, so the idea of investigating the crime that occurred even before I was born was quite daunting,” he told reporters.

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Francis confirmed the ownership of the property through several pieces of evidence, including pictures of the painting that the family took. One Christmas photo showed the painting hanging from off the wall in the Wood’s residence.

“This piece of art, what a history it’s had,” France wondered. “It traveled all through the U.K. when it was first painted,” he disclosed. 

“Then it travels overseas to the United States and is sold during the Great Depression. And then sold by the mob and recovered by the FBI decades later,” he continued. “It’s quite amazing,” he concluded. 

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