“Priceless” painting stolen by mob turns up in St. George

Jan 26, 2024, 3:31 PM | Updated: 3:52 pm

stolen painting john opie the schoolmistress with elderly man looking on...

Dr. Francis Wood, 96, looks at the painting stolen from his father's home in 1969. (Photo courtesy: FBI)

(Photo courtesy: FBI)

ST. GEORGE, Utah — A stolen painting, a John Opie original described as “priceless” by the FBI, turned up in the estate of a St. George man. 

It may sound like the plot of “Entrapment” or “The Thomas Crown Affair,” but instead, it was another day at the office for the FBI in southern Utah. 

Stolen painting: Another day at the FBI 

FBI Special Agent Gary France said he was in his office in December 2021 when an accountant came in to report he may have stumbled across the stolen painting while closing out a St. George man’s estate. 

“It definitely ranks in, you know, the top 5 cases I’ve ever worked in my career,” France told reporters Friday. “A very novel and unusual experience. This is the first art crime case that I’ve worked in over 21 years.” 

France credits the accountant, Kris Braunberger, for bringing the stolen painting to his attention. 

“As you can imagine, at the FBI offices – we get inundated with quite a few people that walk in with some pretty fantastical stories, and so when Kris Braunberger walked into our office in December of 2021 and started talking about a stolen painting, I was a little skeptical at first,” France said. “So we quickly ran out to his accounting firm and realized, in fact, that he did have this painting in his possession.” 

historical stolen painting flyer

This flyer was distributed after the John Opie painting “The Schoolmistress” was stolen in 1969. (Photo courtesy: FBI)

He thinks it’s unlikely the man whose estate wound up with the painting, James Gullo, had any idea of the painting’s origins or significance, nor of its mob ties. 

Mob connections to historic artwork

France said his investigation found the painting, “The Schoolmistress,” had been stolen by members of the mob from a New Jersey home back in 1969.

No one knows what happened to the stolen painting in the next 20 years. Gullo purchased it along with a home belonging to Rocchina and Joseph Covello, in Hallandale, Florida in 1989. A real estate transaction document described the Opie painting only as the “Large painting in the living room hallway.” 

Joseph Covello was a member of the Gambino crime family, according to France, who died in 1991. His wife, Rocchina, passed away in 2012. As such, France noted, neither can face charges for the stolen artwork. One of their sons spoke with the FBI after the discovery of the painting and corroborated the details of the sale of the Florida home and the artwork. 

France said he learned a lot about “The Schoolmistress” in the course of the investigation.

agent gary france with doctor francis wood next to stolen painting

FBI Special Agent Gary France looks on as Dr. Francis Wood signs paperwork acknowledging the return of his stolen painting. (Photo courtesy: FBI)

Originally created using oil on canvas in about 1784, the Tate Britain art gallery in London houses the piece’s sister painting. Dr. Earl Leroy Wood purchased the painting for $7,500 during the Great Depression. In 2024, that purchase price would equal more than $137,000. 

The original theft 

Court documents show mob-connected burglars targeted Dr. Wood’s home twice in 1969. On July 7, they allegedly tried to steal his coin collection before the home’s burglar alarm interrupted the attempt. They returned, however, on July 25, taking “The Schoolmistress.” 

The second burglary appeared to result from a remark made by the home’s caretaker. Court documents show the caretaker described the painting to the late Anthony Imperiale, a New Jersey state senator, calling it “priceless.” 

At a trial in 1975, one of the three burglars confessed and said they took the painting under Imperiale’s direction. As no one could corroborate those details, Imperiale never faced charges. 

The FBI believes that the mafia transferred the artwork to another mobster during this time frame, while law enforcement scrutiny remained high. According to France, they believe it stayed in the hands of mobsters through the 1980s. 

From Florida to Utah, then back to New Jersey 

Gullo purchased the Florida home from Covello in 1989, where the stolen painting turned up 20 years after its theft. Eventually, Gullo, sold the home himself and moved it to his property in St. George. It stayed there until his death. 

On January 11, 2024, the FBI says France personally presented the now-recovered painting to the son of Dr. Earl Leroy Wood. 

Now 96 years old, Dr. Francis Wood remembered the stolen painting. His children helped unveil the painting during its return from the FBI. 

“It was fascinating to talk to the Wood family and see the pictures that they had captured in 1968 of this painting on the wall as they gathered for their family holidays,” France said of that meeting, “and to stand in the same room as Dr. Francis Wood and his children, some of who are captured in those photos, was a very surreal experience.”

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“Priceless” painting stolen by mob turns up in St. George