Painting stolen by NJ pol, mobsters returned after 55 years

NEWS: Painting stolen by NJ pol, mobsters returned after 55 years

They didn’t fugeddaboutit.

A “priceless” painting stolen by a New Jersey politician and Mafia members over 50 years ago has been returned to its owner.

The artwork, which was taken in 1969 with the help of former New Jersey state Sen. Anthony Imperiale and mobsters, was given back to Dr. Francis Wood, 96, of Newark, whose father originally bought the piece, on Jan. 11.

Police said a trio of burglars, all involved in organized crime, tried to break into Francis’ parents’ home in 1969 in an attempt to steal a coin collection, but were thwarted by a burglar alarm.

When cops and Imperiale, then a member of the Newark City Council, responded to the scene, an employee at the house told the council member about the “priceless” painting, titled “The Schoolmistress.”

The work, which depicts a teacher sitting at a table surrounded by students, dates back to 1784 and was created by artist John Opie, whose paintings have sold at auction houses such as Sotheby’s and Christie’s, one for almost $1 million.

A painting taken in 1969 with the help of a member of the New Jersey Senate and mobsters was given back to Dr. Francis Wood of Newark, whose father bought the piece. AP

A month later, Imperiale, who died in 1999, allegedly ordered the original three burglars — Gerald Festa, Gerald Donnerstag and Austin Costiglione — to retrieve the artwork, which Wood’s father purchased in the 1930s for $7,500, according to the Salt Lake Tribune.

Imperiale’s plan was leaked by Festa six years later, in the 1975 trial of an accomplice.

Festa said Imperiale ordered him, Donnerstag and Costiglione to commit the crime. He also testified that Imperiale — who was elected to the New Jersey Assembly in 1971 and the state senate in 1973 and also ran for mayor of Newark in 1974 —had the painting, but the politician was never charged.

Artist John Opie painted “The Schoolmistress,” which dates back to 1784 and depicts a teacher sitting at a table surrounded by students. AP

The piece then wound up in St. George, Utah, after a resident bought a house in Florida in 1989 from Joseph Covello Sr. — a mobster linked to the Gambino family — and the painting was included as part of the sale, according to the FBI.

When the man died in 2020, an accounting firm liquidating the property had the painting appraised and it was determined to be the stolen one.

New Jersey State Sen. Anthony Imperiale, who died in 1999, allegedly ordered burglars involved in organized crime to take the artwork for the Woods’ home. ASSOCIATED PRESS

“This piece of art, what a history it’s had,” FBI Special Agent Gary France, who worked on the case, said.

“It traveled all through the UK, when it was first painted, and owned by quite a few families in the UK. And then it travels overseas to the United States and is sold during the Great Depression and then stolen by the mob and recovered by the FBI decades later.

“It’s quite amazing.”

No charges have been filed by the FBI since the painting was discovered, as all of those believed to have been involved in its theft are dead, France said.

With Post wires

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