A large painting by the British artist John Opie, stolen in 1969, was recently recovered and returned after a two-year investigation by the FBI.
Opie’s oil on canvas work The Schoolmistress (1784) measures approximately 40 inches by 50 inches. It had been purchased by Dr. Earl Leroy Wood during the Great Depression in the 1930s for $7,500. After a failed burglary attempt by three thieves at Dr. Wood’s home in early July, 1969, they returned on July 25 and stole the painting.
In 1975, one of the thieves testified during a trial that the theft of the painting was done under the direction of then-New Jersey State Senator Anthony Imperiale, who had responded to the first incident at Dr. Wood’s home.
“The home’s caretaker mentioned to Senator Imperale that the 1784 Opie painting was ‘priceless,’” according to a press release from the FBI’s Salt Lake City field office.
The senator, however, was never charged.
The path of return to Dr. Wood’s son Francis, now 96 years of age, started in December 2021, after the FBI was contacted by an accounting firm in Utah. The firm was hired to liquidate a client’s residences and personal property after he died in 2020. One of the client’s past residences was a home in Hallandale, Florida he purchased from convicted mobster Joseph Covello, Sr. in 1989.
“The Opie painting was included in the sale of the home without the client’s knowledge of its identity or history. The client eventually sold his Florida home and moved the painting to St. George, Utah, where it remained until his death in 2020,” the FBI said.
The Utah accounting firm, acting as a trustee for the client, had attempted to appraise the artwork for auction, resulting in the discovery of the painting’s original connection to the Wood family.
“It was an honor playing a role in recovering a significant piece of art and culture, and reuniting a family with its stolen heritage,” Special FBI Agent France said in a press release. “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.”
A “sister painting” by Opie, also titled The School Mistress (1784), is currently on display at the Tate Britain museum in London.