Clementine’s Hunters: Chapter 4 | Painting Yourself Into a Corner

Publisher’s Note: This article originally appeared in Country Roads on December 21, 2018 and has been republished with permission.

In June of 2008, FBI agent Randolph J. Deaton IV, better known as Randy, was in First Assistant U.S. Attorney Alexander Van Hook’s Shreveport office when he was asked to investigate his first ever art-forgery case. Deaton, who had specialized in bank-fraud and money-laundering cases, asked why Van Hook wanted him to investigate who was making and selling paintings purported to be by folk artist Clementine Hunter.

“Because you’re the only person I know who watches Antiques Roadshow,” Van Hook replied.

“I am a huge fan,” admits Deaton, a Port Allen native and LSU graduate who recently celebrated twenty years with the FBI. “I absolutely love that show. I even watch reruns.”

RANDY DEATON (CENTER) DISCUSSES CLEMENTINE HUNTER FORGERIES AT THE NATIONAL CENTER FOR PRESERVATION TECHNOLOGY AND TRAINING

Deaton learned that, around the 1990s, hundreds of Hunter paintings had been offered on the market. “They looked fresh, like they were painted yesterday,” he says now. But he considered himself a complete novice when it came to art—specifically the work of Hunter (1886–1988), whose work was reportedly being copied by forgers who sold them through an antiques dealer in Natchitoches. “All I knew about Clementine Hunter was that friends of my wife’s family had a painting by her,” says Deaton. “That painting of a bowl of zinnias was considered a really big deal.”

“I ASKED, ‘WHAT DREW YOU TO THIS ART? WHY DO YOU LOVE IT SO MUCH?’ I TRIED TO GET AS MUCH VALUE AS I COULD OUT OF EACH INTERVIEW, TO BE AS KNOWLEDGEABLE AS I COULD. I WANTED TO BE SURE I DID THINGS RIGHT FROM DAY ONE. EACH TIME I WAS OFFERED THE OPPORTUNITY TO VIEW A COLLECTION, I WENT AND HEARD THEIR STORIES.”

Clementine depicted scenes familiar to her—weddings, baptisms, cotton picking, fights at a honky tonk. At first she sold them for a dollar or less, but by the time she died her paintings commanded thousands of dollars when sold by dealers. 

Van Hook, whose office is in Shreveport, had learned of the fakes from Tom Whitehead, a Natchitoches resident who had been friends with Hunter, owns hundreds of her paintings, and wrote two books about her. He and several friends had bought several “Hunter” paintings from Robert “Robbie” Lucky, owner of an antiques shop in Natchitoches. “We figured out they were fakes when we noticed they were too perfect,” says Whitehead. “Clementine’s work always had imperfections.”

Before returning their paintings to Lucky for refunds, Whitehead and his friends took the precaution of initialing and dating the backs of the paintings and photographing them. Whitehead later learned that Lucky had blacked out the inked notations and sold the fakes to other unsuspecting victims.

As soon as he got the complaint from Whitehead, Van Hook enlisted Deaton to investigate it. “I asked Randy to take the case because of his thoroughness,” says Van Hook. “I knew he’d do a bang-up job.” The two men drove to Whitehead’s house in Natchitoches to interview him. “We sat at my dining table,” says Whitehead. “I had a big loose-leaf binder with photos of both real and fake paintings.”

Deaton, who was 37 at the time, got right on it. “I bought Shelby Gilley’s book on [Hunter’s] Africa House murals and several other books about her,” he said. “I started reading everything I could find on her.”

“THIS INVESTIGATION LEGITIMIZED FOLK ART AND SHOWED THAT THE U.S. GOVERNMENT WAS WILLING TO PRESERVE IT AND PROTECT IT.”

Another buyer was Baton Rouge businessman Don Fuson, who had purchased $30,000 worth of fake Hunters from William and Beryl Toye of Baton Rouge. The Toyes told Fuson that they had lost everything in Hurricane Katrina and were forced to sell paintings they had collected since the 1960s. But friends of Hunter, including Whitehead, said they had never heard of the Toyes. After consulting experts who declared the paintings fakes, and failing to get the Toyes to return his money, Fuson had gone to several law-enforcement agencies seeking justice but met with no success. “Several people tried going to law enforcement, but nobody knew what to do about this,” says Whitehead. “If it’s folk art that sells for two or three thousand dollars, they don’t care. Nobody wanted to prosecute these ‘piddling’ crimes.”

Deaton did.

“There’s an interstate aspect to the case, with paintings being shipped all over the U.S. and interstate communications via email and fax,” says Deaton. “There were numerous victims. It was a highly complex case. That’s the kind of work the FBI should be doing, specifically the interstate-commerce aspect. Federal law was violated.” 

Deaton learned that William Toye had had several brushes with law enforcement. In a 1969 newspaper article, he had reported that his apartment on St. Charles Avenue in New Orleans had been broken into and several works of art created by him had been stolen or vandalized. In 1974, he was caught in a New Orleans Police Department sting selling fake Clementine Hunter paintings from a Canal Street business called Dial-A-Date. In the mid-1990s, he had been involved in a kerfuffle with the owners of the Louisiana Auction Exchange in Baton Rouge, where he consigned for sale dozens of paintings, including a “Degas” and a “Matisse.” 

In none of those cases was Toye prosecuted.

Deaton sifted through each case and, in his words, essentially “reinvestigated” each one. A summary of the 1974 case gave the names and addresses of victims and witnesses, many of which Deaton and his team were able to interview. He also contacted the officers who had arrested Toye in 1974 and learned that they had taken twenty-two paintings from victims  to Natchitoches, where Hunter lived. After examining the paintings, Hunter said only one, titled “Guess What It Is,” had been made by her hand. “This was proof that Mr. Toye had been copying works by Clementine Hunter at least thirty years earlier,” says Deaton. 

He also learned that the police had taken a set of fingerprints from Hunter. “She painted on hardboard that she held in her lap,” says Deaton. “Some of her paintings have smudges and fingerprints on them.

“That set of prints would be nice to have, but they were later lost in a flood or hurricane,” says Deaton.

Deaton spoke to experts on Hunter’s work, including collectors. “I asked, ‘What drew you to this art? Why do you love it so much?’ I tried to get as much value as I could out of each interview, to be as knowledgeable as I could. I wanted to be sure I did things right from Day One. Each time I was offered the opportunity to view a collection, I went and heard their stories.”

But he was careful not to tip his hand.

“I had to be very protective. I didn’t want the Toyes to find out I was doing an investigation. To get a search warrant, I had to be careful whom I approached. I interviewed a very limited number of people to preserve secrecy.”

With his file on the Toyes, Deaton went to a Baton Rouge judge and obtained a warrant to search their house on Keaty Drive. He accompanied a group of about a dozen agents to the house in September 2009. 

The agents were taken aback at the condition of the two-story Toye house, which was cluttered and dirty. “We found a house in deplorable condition,” says Deaton. “There were something like eighteen cats in the house, with five-gallon buckets of used cat litter, and the cats in bad shape. One of our female agents was pregnant, and we didn’t let her come inside.”

In the five-hour raid, the agents removed four or five banker’s boxes of evidence, including five “Hunter” paintings, three hundred tubes of paint, and hundreds of documents intended to provide provenance for fake works of art. “We found two letters written on stationery from the 331 Gallery in New Orleans. It was the exact same letter, one signed and one unsigned.” Deaton notes that the Toyes had forged the signature of gallery owner Marc Antony. “This was really good evidence.” (Later, an FBI forensics lab would inform Deaton that letters purportedly written in the late 1960s and early ‘70s had been typed with an IBM Selectric font that was not available until the mid-1970s.)

Every agent had a different assignment at the raid. Deaton’s was to interview Toye, who at first said that his wife Beryl had created the fakes. But soon Toye confessed to having painted them himself. 

“I had to go through all the evidence and review it,” says Deaton. “I went through it multiple times with a fine-toothed comb. When you are preparing for a trial, you don’t want any surprises.” 

Deaton asked the National Center for Preservation Technology and Training in Natchitoches to allow technicians from two out-of-state companies to use its lab. “We had them test originals from two sources, and we knew the provenance was good. The owners had bought them directly from Clementine. The others were suspected fakes bought by the victims. The scientists used the lab to take photos. They also removed paint samples with a needle. Then they analyzed the paint.” The analysis revealed that the paintings had been made by two different artists.

Deaton struck gold when he discovered that the Toyes had filed for bankruptcy in 1967, 1977, and 1988. Each filing included a list of their assets. Conspicuously missing from that list was a collection of Hunter paintings. “If they had owned the paintings and concealed that information, that in itself would have been a federal crime,” he says.

WILLIAM TOYE

In February 2010, the Toyes and Lucky were indicted for mail fraud, wire fraud, and conspiracy, and summoned to an initial appearance in court. When they returned for a plea hearing, all three pled not guilty. 

Deaton, Van Hook, and Assistant U.S. Attorney Cytheria Jernigan prepared to go to trial, spending months developing their case. But as the trial approached, the three defendants, one by one, changed their minds and pled guilty. 

William Toye, then 80, and his wife Beryl, 70, were sentenced to two years probation and in-house confinement in a Baton Rouge nursing home. Judge Dee Drell ordered William Toye to sign forty of the fake paintings as part of his sentence.

Lucky, then 64, was sentenced to twenty-five months in prison, which he served. He died in 2017. Toye died in early 2018 and is reportedly buried in a pauper’s graveyard in the Zachary area. Beryl Toye remains in a Baton Rouge nursing home. 

Since 2012 Deaton has given lectures on the case worldwide. He spoke to a standing-room-only crowd at the Hilliard Museum in Lafayette last November. He has also addressed audiences in Lebanon and Peru. 

He joined the Rapid Deployment Art Crimes Team in 2016. “Being selected was quite the honor,” says Deaton. “They were looking for agents with terrorism experience. There are about twenty-five working agents around the country.”

He has also acquired an extensive library of books on art fraud and set up Google alerts for art forgery and art authentication. “I review websites a couple of times a week.

“The day I retire I want to still be learning how to do my job better.”

His desire to see justice done for the victims, and for the reputation of Hunter, fueled his work. “This investigation legitimized folk art and showed that the U.S. government was willing to preserve it and protect it,” he says.

Deaton is quick to credit others. “All the work I do is for nothing if I can’t get it to a court and have it prosecuted,” he says. “I worked with super smart, highly intelligent, pit-bull prosecutors with the same passion I have for these cases. They were passionate about this case and knew the importance of it. 

“And these cases are nothing unless the victims come forward. Don Fuson was very helpful,” he says. “We really want to educate the public how important it is that they report crimes to the FBI.” 

Fuson returns the compliment. “We’re really fortunate to have Randy,” he says. “I went to the FBI two times previously, even had an attorney go with me, and got nowhere. The case never would have happened without Randy. He’s passionate about this work and about getting justice for Clementine.” 

Toye had no hand in this Hunter homage, presented to Deaton by friends to commemorate his successful investigation.

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Ruth Laney’s work has appeared in national magazines including Family Circle, Sports Illustrated for Kids, and Travel & Leisure. She is a stringer for People magazine. A member of the American Society of Journalists and Authors, she has covered major sports competitions in the U.S., Europe, and Asia (including several Olympics), for magazines, wire services, and newspapers. She wrote and coproduced the television documentary Ernest J. Gaines: Louisiana Stories, which won an award from the National Association for State and Local History and was shown at the New Orleans and Orinda (California) film festivals. She is at work on a book, Cherie Quarters: The Place and the People, about the community where Gaines grew up, which is the setting for his fiction. She writes the Country Roads column Antiquarians, about people who are in love with the past. She looks for subjects consumed by a passion for history and a desire to inhabit the mysterious realm of the long-ago. She lives in Baton Rouge, where she collects Louisiana books and art, textiles, watermelon tchotchkes, and cobalt-blue glass.