Publisher’s Note: This article originally appeared in Country Roads Magazine on Dec. 29, 2009 under the title “Clementine Hunter Fakes.” Its author, Ruth Laney, has teamed up with The Bayou Brief and has provided permission to republish her original report. We have made minor edits for the purposes of clarification, continuity, and context.
If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then three years after the publication of The Joyous Coast in 1971, Clementine Hunter, who was already in detiortating health, had officially arrived as painter. “In 1974, Hunter’s reputation had grown so- and with it, the price of her works- that the inevitable occurred: a forgery scare,” James L. Wilson documents in his book Clementine Hunter, American Folk Artist.
“Rumors that either a grandson or a nephew was grinding out Hunter copies and selling them began to fly. And in New Orleans, an artist was charged with copying her paintings and trying to sell them as Hunter originals.”
Hunter was working as a cook at Melrose Plantation in Natchitoches when she picked up discarded tubes of paint and “marked a picture” on a window shade. A folk artist was born.
Clementine depicted scenes familiar to her—weddings, baptisms, cotton picking, fights at a juke joint. At first she sold them for a dollar or less, but by the time she died in 1988 at 101, her paintings commanded thousands of dollars when sold by dealers.
In September of 2009, the artist’s work became the center of a scandal when the FBI raided the Baton Rouge house of William and Beryl Toye, who are suspected of selling about $100,000 worth of fake Hunters. Armed with a search warrant, agents swarmed the Toyes’ house for five hours, hauling away paintings, art supplies, computers, typewriters, and documents.
FBI documents say the Toyes and New Orleans antiques dealer Robert Lucky, Jr. (who has since died) “engaged in a conspiracy and a scheme to defraud several victims [in] Louisiana and in other states . . . [and] knowingly sold forgeries as original, authentic works of art by Clementine Hunter.” They are suspected of conspiracy and mail fraud.
Newspaper accounts show that William Toye was working as an artist in New Orleans by the 1960s. In 1969, he told police his apartment had been broken into and fifty paintings by him had been stolen or vandalized.
In 1974, Toye was arrested on twenty-two counts of forgery for making and selling “Hunter” paintings. The case was never prosecuted.
In 1996, the Toyes consigned paintings to the Louisiana Auction Exchange (LAE) in Baton Rouge. Ultimately a number of the works, including a “Matisse” and a “Degas,” were determined to be fakes. Toye, listed in LAE catalogs as Dr. W. Geoffrey Toye, accused LAE owner Ronald Causey of counterfeiting the works. Toye filed complaints against Causey with the Louisiana Auctioneers Licensing Board, stating that Causey had failed to pay Toye for paintings sold at auction. The board did not suspend the license of Causey, who died in 2004.
Toye has told several people that he and his wife were left destitute when Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans in August 2005. He claimed that a warehouse where he stored opera sets he designed was flooded, leaving him without a source of income.
Around 2000, Robert Lucky, Jr. moved from Natchitoches to New Orleans. According to FBI documents, about this time new Hunter forgeries appeared on the market. Lucky sold fifty to a hundred paintings for the Toyes to buyers in Louisiana, Arkansas, Texas, and New York and misrepresented the provenance of the paintings, telling buyers “that the sources of his paintings were other Hunter collectors, not the Toyes.”
Although Lucky is named along with the Toyes in FBI documents, he had not been subject to a search and seizure as of mid-December. Contacted by phone, he said he was “not allowed to discuss” the case. He has engaged a criminal defense attorney.
A longtime resident of Natchitoches, Lucky owned an antiques shop there where he sold paintings. In 1991, he reported the theft of thirty-two Hunter paintings from his shop. Lucky told the local newspaper that the $80,000 loss was covered by insurance.
In 1999, Lucky was arrested in Shreveport on felony theft charges for failing to deliver three Hunter paintings to a buyer who had paid him $21,000 for them. He was later released on bond.
In 2000, Robert Ryan, a New Orleans physician who was selling part of his large collection of Hunters, obtained a judgment against Lucky for $12,000, payment for paintings Lucky had sold for him. Lucky was by then working for a large French Quarter antiques shop. According to court documents, Ryan successfully sought to have Lucky’s wages garnisheed, collecting the final payment in 2005.
In November 2005, William Toye met Don Fuson, a Baton Rouge businessman and art collector. Although Fuson was not interested in Hunter’s work, he said he felt sorry for Toye, who told him he had “lost everything” in Katrina and was forced to sell a collection of Hunter paintings his wife Beryl had collected since the 1960s.
Fuson bought several pieces from Toye for $30,000 and sold some to friends. A month or so later, one of the buyers called and told Fuson he had shown his Hunter to experts who labeled it a fake.
Fuson went at once to the Toyes’ house, told them he believed the paintings were forgeries, and asked for his money back. Beryl Toye told Fuson she had bought the paintings directly from Hunter. Within a few days, she sent Fuson a letter stating, “The onus is not upon us to prove that [the paintings] are real[,] it is upon you to prove that they are not.”
Fuson met with William Toye and painting conservator Margaret Moreland, who had cleaned several of the paintings for Toye. A respected conservator in business for twenty-five years, Moreland said she has cleaned many paintings for Toye. After Katrina, Toye took several purported Hunters to Moreland for cleaning.
“He kept asking me ‘Do you think these are real? I don’t want people to think they’re fake,’” said Moreland, who attached a condition report to each painting she cleaned. She now believes Toye showed her condition reports to potential buyers as proof of authenticity. “There is no way I certified them,” she said. “These are just notes I make for myself, to keep track of them.”
Janice Delerno, who sells art at her Baton Rouge frame shop and gallery, bought five Hunters from Toye but soon questioned their authenticity. “I started getting suspicious of him,” she said. “He had this unending collection of paintings with anything you could possibly want. You could name the subject matter and size. I just started wondering what was going on.”
Delerno took her paintings to a Hunter expert who told her they were fakes.
Shannon Foley of New Orleans was another dealer who bought from the Toyes and one of the few who went to their house. “It was dirty,” she recalled of the room where the paintings were displayed. “There was dust everywhere. Three, four, maybe five cats were around. I was pregnant, and the stench of cat urine hit me in the face. I thought, ‘Omigosh, this is crazy.’ I had to get out of there.
“You meet a lot of eccentric people in the art world who live in bizarre conditions and yet have valuable things,” said Foley, who bought five paintings that day. She quickly sold four of them and bought fourteen more by mail. In all, she paid $44,000 for nineteen paintings.
Foley put some of her Hunter paintings up for sale on an art Web site and at an auction house in New Orleans. Within days she learned that they were thought to be fakes. She called the Toyes and requested her money back. “They said all these people were jealous of them, that other people were the forgers,” said Foley.
Foley filed suit against the Toyes. Like Fuson, who also sued, Foley has never been able to have them served with papers. “They hide and won’t answer the door,” said Fuson.
Stephanie Hardie, owner of a Baton Rouge financial-services company, said William Toye approached her in 2006 or 2007 for a loan. When she turned him down, Toye offered to put up some Hunter paintings as collateral. Hardie, who said she likes primitive art, offered to buy five of them. She balked at Toye’s asking price of $7,500, and he lowered it to $2,500. “Some were rare ones, like a Christmas tree,” she said. “When I asked what else he had, he gave me a spiral-bound notebook with Polaroids of the paintings. He told me, ‘I can get you any of these you want in lots of sizes.’”
Pasted inside the notebook was a letter dated 1973 from Marc Antony of the 331 Gallery in New Orleans, a business that closed in 1966, according to FBI documents. The letter stated that the Toyes owned 438 Hunter paintings worth approximately $45,000. (Toye gave copies of the letter to Delerno and Foley as provenance for the paintings.) Hardie gave the notebook to the FBI, which describes it as containing photographs of sixty works of art.
The FBI investigation reaches beyond Louisiana to the Weisman Art Museum at the University of Minnesota. “The FBI took photos of all thirty-eight of our Hunters,” said museum director Lyndel King. “Last March we heard that five of them might be forgeries.” King said the paintings were donated to the museum by a local collector and his family.
Toye, 78, said he is not concerned about a possible indictment of him and his 68-year-old wife. He accused dealer Robert Lucky of forging the Hunter paintings. “He was probably taking photographs of them and duplicating them,” said Toye, who also accused the FBI of bringing fakes to the raid on his house. “They had a painting, supposedly a Clementine, that I had never seen before,” he said. “They had to have brought it with them. We didn’t even know it was there.”
Those who bought from the Toyes said their modus operandi is to accuse the accuser. “[William Toye] turns it around and accuses the person he sold the art to of copying it,” said Delerno. “It’s ludicrous.”
Said Foley, “It’s like they’re scripting their own reality.”
Fuson is angry about possible damage to Hunter’s reputation. “Clementine was a poor black woman who painted for pennies and nickels,” he said. “These people copy her work and sign her name to get thousands of dollars for something she’d have gotten thirty dollars for. She is the person most violated by this.”
Postscript: This 2012 presentation explains, in great detail, how to best authenticate a Hunter original.