October 31, 2009

Baton Rouge painters accused of forgery...again


Clementine Hunter at home near Natchitoches, Louisiana © 1974-Christopher R. Harris, All Rights Reserved

Michael Kunzelman reports at AP that a pair of Baton Rouge painters is accused of forging work by Clementine Hunter, a self-taught artist who died in 1988. "The old man's sales pitch sounded plausible enough to art collector Don Fuson. The warning signs didn't appear until after Fuson paid him $30,000 for what he thought were paintings by renowned folk artist Clementine Hunter. By the time the FBI got involved, Fuson didn't need the agents to tell him what he already suspected: The paintings appeared to be forgeries. The FBI is investigating allegations that William Toye, 78, and his wife Beryl Ann, 68, have been selling forged paintings to unsuspecting art collectors and dealers since the 1970s. William Toye was arrested in the '70s on a charge of forging Hunter's work, but was never prosecuted.

"'We can all be fooled, and this man fooled me,' Fuson said. 'I gave him the benefit of the doubt at every turn, and that's not normally me.' Some of the collectors and dealers who purchased paintings from the Toyes say the biggest victim would be Hunter, who died in 1988 at age 101. The black folk artist taught herself to paint while living in Louisiana's rural Natchitoches Parish. Her paintings — believed to number in the thousands — depict cotton picking, baptisms, funerals and other scenes of plantation life. Since her death, paintings that once fetched several hundred dollars now routinely sell for thousands....

"Fuson wasn't an avid Hunter collector when William Toye visited his Baton Rouge store in November 2005. But he agreed to buy a few paintings after hearing Toye's story: His wife started buying paintings from Hunter in the 1960s. Their collection survived Hurricane Katrina, but the couple wanted to sell them after moving from New Orleans to Baton Rouge. 'The story read right to me. Nothing seemed wrong,' he recalled. Fuson found it strange that Toye kept changing his telephone number, but that didn't stop him from buying more paintings. It wasn't until February 2006 that Fuson heard from other buyers that Toye was suspected of selling forgeries."

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