LA Times Profile

Tony and Michelangelo

Tony and Michelangelo

An Artist of Talent and, Some Say, Genius, Tony Tetro Is Charged With Forging the Works of Chagall, Miro, Dali. But He Claims Only to Be:

THE REPRO MAN
By: Paul Dean
Times Staff Writer

Tony Tetro’s high and expensive profile was the very model of the modern major drug dealer. When not driving a Rolls-Royce Silver Spirit, he growled around town in either of his two Ferraris. Or the Lamborghini Countach. His bachelor condominium in Claremont was trilevel and custom-decorated in wallpaper of lizard and suede. The paintings were Picasso erotics.

Tetro knew the bistros of Paris as well as the tavernas of Rome and when in Monte Carlo he stayed at Loews but gambled at the old casino. Yet the cool, mobile, groomed, expansive, charming and ever-partying Tetro had no visible income. Nor any apparent career, known inheritance or lottery win.So suspicious neighbors were not at all surprised when county investigators raided the condo and arrested him. Then the charges were announced; that really shook the complex on Manchester Court.

Tetro stood accused not of dealing drugs–but of forging the fine art of Marc Chagall, Joan Miro, Salvador Dali, and modern watercolorist Hiro Yamagata. Specifically, he was charged with 38 felony counts of forging lithographs of paintings by Chagall, Miro and Norman Rockwell. He also faces 29 counts of forging Yamagata watercolors.

“I consider Mr. Tetro to be one of the two major (art) forgers in the United States,” said district attorney’s investigator Gary Helton. “The other was in New York, but he died.”

Tetro–the son of a New York house painter who developed a special process for coating water towers–recalls his feelings when arrested, arraigned and proclaimed the nation’s biggest art forger. Some relief. A certain satisfaction. Also a twitch of pride.”For well over 10 years, every cop in this valley and many people who didn’t know me personally, were certain I was a drug dealer,” he
remembers.

“I must have heard it myself, conservatively, 300 times. And the more I defended myself, the more I wasn’t believed.
“Drive down the street in a Ferrari and a cop is certain that you’re a drug dealer. And you are constantly harassed, constantly getting tickets for nothing, constantly getting your car searched.

“So there was some satisfaction . . . even some pride when I was arrested . . . that finally these idiots knew that I was an artist.” An artist of definite talent, he claims. Certainly a painter with a genius for re-creating the oils of Rembrandt, Renoir and Monet, right down to their signatures. But, he insists, not an art forger.

“Forgery indicates intent to defraud . . . and I never sold anything as real,” he explains. “I prefer (the term) reproductions , in my definition an exact copy as close (to original) as you can do. “Every one of my friends knew what I did. You know: ‘What do you do for a living?’ ‘I copy masters.’ I even had business cards which said: Anthony Tetro, Art Reproductions.

That explanation undergoes public examination next month when Anthony Gene Tetro, 40, ex-altar boy and a former furniture salesman for The Broadway, goes to trial in Los Angeles County Superior Court. At a preliminary hearing, he pleaded innocent and was released on $10,000 bail.

And in the nine months since that hearing, Tetro has concentrated on liquidating his assets to solidify finances for his defense. He has sold the exotic cars (the Rolls-Royce went for a bargain $32,000) and now drives a Honda Civic. The condo has gone and home is a small apartment in an unimaginative complex in Upland.

Some Yamagata watercolors overlooked by raiding investigators have been sold to longtime friends such as Colton mortgage banker Ken Ketner. “I have a couple of real Chagalls and some of Tony’s Chagalls and I havea lot of fun with them,” said Ketner. “No one can tell the difference. “I also have a genuine Yamagata that cost me $7,500. After his arrest, Tony sold me five or six of his Yamagatas for $1,000 for all of them. They aren’t bad. And they were definitely purchased as Tetros.” Tetro has a personal publicist from Exclusive News Relations of Los Angeles. “We specialize in celebrity repositioning,” notes chief press agent Mark Manning, “people who have been misunderstood by the public and the media.”

The agency’s fee will be a Tetro oil of Winston Churchill, and a percentage of proceeds from the sale of a Ferrari Testarossa replica that Tetro built in flusher years. The artist has a new attorney. But Jay J Tanenbaum is working for cash only.

And as his Feb. 4 trial approaches, Tetro, who acknowledges no formal art training beyond reading books and visiting museums, agreed to his first full-length interview. “I think we (defense) are going to show, in essence, that I painted … and other people did the crime,” he says. “I never represented them as real. Other people sold my stuff as real.

“I want to also emphasize that most of the work that I did do was not for the art industry at all. (Art brokers) contacted me, they came to me because they found that I could copy anything and emulate anything. “And they said there’s a market for excellent copies. So I started doing them and, in fact, developed a printing method that is unique, and I did colored lithographs, Chagall, Dali, Miro. . . . ”

But with lithographs sprouting like museum posters, what is the profit in reproducing the readily available? There exist, explains Tetro, only 200 authentic lithographs of Norman Rockwell’s painting, “Doctor and Doll”:

“They’re all gone (sold) and they’re over $18,000 if you want one. But every doctor in the world wants one for his office . . . and I sold mine for $500.” The history and economics of Tetro’s career, however, are of little concern to investigator Helton. His interest is on the legal definitions of forgery, and evidence that Tetro marketed his work knowing they would be sold as originals.

“I think we have a real solid case,” Helton says. It was Helton who led the 16-person raid that filled one van and loaded a stake-bed truck with the lithographs and paintings seized at Tetro’s home. Although several dozen copies of oils, lithos and gouaches by Dali and Picasso also were seized, they do not figure in the charges. Helton says art forgers generate “large dollar amounts, a lot of victims” and roam relatively unthreatened in a market policed by “only three people I know in law enforcement with the expertise to work these cases.”

Other investigators say developments in photomechanical printing, an explosive demand for lithographs and an affluent generation of dabblers more interested in quick profit than authentic art, have added to theripeness of the market.

In recent months:
* Manhattan Beach art broker Frank de Marigny, 38, pleaded no contest and was sentenced to 30 months in prison on multiple counts of grand theft and art forgery. De Marigny tried to sell a fake Renoir to an undercover police officer and wanted $3.2 million for it.

* Federal authorities reported that between 1980 and 1987, more than $1 billion worth of fake Dalis alone have been found in galleries from Newport Beach to New York.

* Pierre Marcand, a Beverly Hills art dealer, has been named a defendant in a civil suit filed by the Federal Trade Commission. It alleges Marcand produced and sold at least 22,000 fake prints.

* In March, 1989, Mark Henry Sawicki, former owner of a Sherman Oaks gallery, was charged with 10 counts of art forgery and grand theft. And there was born a perfect witness, a capstone of the district attorney’s case against Tetro. Because after his arrest, Sawicki copped a plea. In exchange for three years probation, 1,000 hours of community service and $78,000 in restitution, the dealer agreed to deliver Tetro as the man who painted the art he had sold.

Sawicki set up a meeting at Tetro’s condominium. They discussed mutual friends, monies owed and artworks to be created–while Sawicki was wearing a concealed tape recorder. The audiotape and Sawicki’s testimony were bombshells at Tetro’s preliminary hearing in Los Angeles Municipal Court. On the tape, Tetro is heard to say he “did a Chagall” and that other paintings were “in the works.” In testimony, Sawicki said he saw Tetro practicing artists’ signatures on note pads and scratch paper and “on the backs of damaged artwork.”

The case against Tetro continues to build–brutally. Dealer Sawicki has told authorities that between 1984 and 1989, he did from $75,000 to $100,000 in business with Tetro–and sold hundreds of works attributed to Miro, Dali and Yamagata. In an interview, Helton said he located examples of that work at the Carol Lawrence Galleries in Beverly Hills and as far afield as Studio 47 in New York and a gallery in Japan. Los Angeles Police Detective Bill Martin, an art fraud expert, says Tetro is “a major player.”

Yet, even if guilty and convicted as charged, eight years is the maximum jail sentence for the charges Tetro faces. And within a justice system that rarely deals in maximums, Tetro is unlikely to serve a full sentence.

“But it’s not a laughing matter,” said Tetro’s prosecutor, deputy district attorney Reva Goetz. “He has taken the work of these artists and made the market unreliable, and thrown into question, for most people, the viability of the entire graphics market.”

Artist Yamagata says that although Tetro’s copies, in general, are “not bad,” he wishes Tetro had painted in his own style: “I just don’t know why he doesn’t establish his own way. I feel sorry for him because he took the easy way, he didn’t go his own way. Having talent to paint in general is one thing. But artists must also have a passion for creation before a painting exists.

“I paint a very tranquil image. It represents my feelings, my senses, my memories and you just can’t copy those. Not being able to copy my passion and energies means people (buyers) can’t find it in his copies.” Barry Levine, president of Martin Lawrence Galleries and one of Yamagata’s publishers, says he presumes forgeries have affected sales of his client’s watercolors. But he knows of no way to measure financial loss.

Levine should be one of Tetro’s harshest critic. But he’s not. “From a glance, hanging on a wall, it (a Tetro watercolor) looked like a Yamagata,” Levine commented. “Could people have taken it for a Yamagata? Yeah. Sure.”

But would an expert be fooled? “If he had sat down and studied it and perhaps knew Mr. Yamagata’s philosophy as far as watercolors are concerned . . . probably not,” Levine decided.

Tom Binder is president of Tom Binder Fine Arts in Venice, which specializes in Yamagata paintings. He says that “even though there might be only a few forgeries among
hundreds of legitimate watercolors” the emergence of forgeries always “puts a damper on the watercolor market.

“But you know what the bottom line is? The guy (Tetro) was just a brilliant mind that went astray. A Frankenstein. All I know is that the guy’s a genius.”

The genius is in his apartment where rooms are cubes softened by Tetro’s designer eye. He lives within a theme best described as post-Renaissance eclectic clutter. There is a large, framed paper sculpture over a sofa, an original by Billy Mack. But a crystal sculpture on a pedestal is a Lalique look-alike.

Some of the bronzes are recasts. Tetro says: “I traded them for one of my Chagalls.” But a lithograph signed by John Lennon is real. In the bedroom, a faux ficus with faux fallen leaves. On the overhang of the breakfast bar, an enormous, very old, rather ugly French painting of the death of D’Artagnan. Tetro paid $1,000 for the cracked canvas. He said he intended to paint over it. Its antiquity would be perfect for his planned reproduction of
Rembrandt’s “The Night Watch.”

A magnificent, hand-carved gilt frame holds a surrealist oil that must be a Dali. The patina is deep. A hand-scripted plaque is inscribed with the title, “Nuclear Disintegration of the Head of a Virgin,” the name of Salvador Dali and 1953 as the date of painting.

But Tetro painted it. It is not a copy, he says, but an emulation of Dali’s artistic hallucination.
“I enjoy doing emulations more than copying,” Tetro says. But the plaque with Dali’s name? “A job worth doing is worth doing well.” How well is that? “Most are very, very close,” he continues. “Sometimes I grade them like they do (automobiles) at a concours . A hundred-pointer, 98 points, 99, like that.” How many points for this Rembrandt, the copy of “Man in a Golden Helmet”? “I’d say that is a good 98.”

Art for Tony Tetro began in a parochial school in Fulton, N.Y. “I drew a picture of one of the nuns, Sister Antonia. I did this beautiful Vargas picture of her, but pruney-faced and in a habit. “She whacked me and took me to the priest. He chuckled.” Tetro married his pregnant high school girlfriend at 16 and was a father at 17. He moved to California at 19 and was divorced by 23. By then, he was reading about art, learning about canvas and paper,experimenting with paints and using formaldehyde and a baking process to produce craquelure –the surface cracking of oil paintings that indicates antiquity.

He learned that Cortez used a pinhole in the center of each canvas to set horizon and perspective for his Paris street scenes. He has visited the Chagall museum in Nice, says he enjoys Renoir’s work for their happy sense and believes restoration of the Sistine Chapel reduced its reverence by showing a cartoon coloring to Michelangelo’s frescoes. . . .

Tetro says he was short only one skill: His own style. “I never really had a tremendous desire to be a famous artist,” he explains. “But I enjoyed painting and I enjoyed copying.” He also found copying classics an effective way to absorb techniques and understand emotions of the masters. “I enjoyed doing a Renoir and using his pastel colors, learning how he would fuse everything around the subject until everything was blurred but the subject’s face. “Then he’d put a splash of color over here … and I’d understand why he did it. I didn’t understand why he did it just by looking at it.” He found pleasure, even a vicarious thrill, in the work.

So Tetro tried selling his imitations at local art fairs.
“But nobody wanted a Rembrandt because they figured if you put a Rembrandt over your fireplace, somebody is going to think it is a print,” he remembers. “I sold them for about $300 in an Aaron Brothers frame. Although I didn’t sell many.” Then he began copying from photographs. And 15 years ago, a hobby grew into a business.

“I did portraits of many people,” Tetro said. “Judges. FBI agents. I did Herb Hafif . . . and it is hanging in his office right now.” (Hafif, a Claremont trial lawyer and a 1974 gubernatorial candidate, said that he received the portrait as a Christmas gift from his employees. “Those who claim it to be a wonderful likeness, I consider to be my friends. (The portrait) forever memorializes me as a person in his early 40s.”)

By this time, Tetro had even developed a nom de brush –Petrocelli–to create an illusion of respectability for his original art. Whether painting portraits or duplicating Gauguin, however, the artistic progression of Tetro has been complete. He buys only old canvases to re-create old masterpieces. He travels to France to purchase art supplies, like stretcher bars, unique to European canvases.

An original Tetro portrait, he says, such as the one painted for Hafif, might sell for $5,000. A Tetro reproduction of a Chagall, even an emulation, would fetch $2,000. A small watercolor would be worth $300. “For that you got a Yamagata,” he says.

In the early ’80s, art in America found new populism.
Affordable paintings became the fad. Graphic arts begat fine art. The market broadened into a multibillion-dollar business serving a largely naive Middle America through galleries with multiple branches in countless shopping malls.

Said one Los Angeles dealer: “A lot of people were more concerned with whether a piece will match their carpeting than whether it’s authentic.” Tetro found that those same people who once had shied from reproductions, now wanted them. His work became “very marketable . . . and I was told that a lot of these paintings were going to be sold as excellent copies for people who couldn’t afford originals.

“Many people hang reproductions in their homes and try to pass them off as real to their friends,” he notes. “It’s snob appeal. Which is, in the United States, probably the No. 1 reason why people buy art.” So Tetro got wealthy. Not terribly rich, he says, and certainly not to the level of opening a Swiss bank account and buying Florida real estate. “But I made a good living,” he said.

There certainly were earnings enough for Tetro to invest six years and several hundred thousand dollars in a new and enormously ambitious re-creation–of a 1958 Ferrari Testarossa race car. Two original TR58s were built. Neither survived their racing careers. So Tetro bought a fading and elderly Ferrari street car for its chassis, engine and transmission. The frame was shortened and narrowed, the enginereturned to racing specifications.

This, said Tetro, was not a typical replicar “where they put a shabby engine in it, put new chrome wheels with shiny hubs on it. I went to finite detail in recreating everything exactly the way it was originally. “It is a perfect re-creation.”

An identical sense of detail, Tetro said, went into his artwork. His reputation for flawless reproduction grew. Then, he said, “about four or five” art brokers began calling for lithographs, oils and watercolors. “Still, I only sold them as reproductions or emulations done by me,”he repeated. “I was very specific about it.”

Beyond that–observing attorney Tanenbaum’s instructions–Tetro won’t comment on his case. He does say the arrest and the charges, the hearings and 20 months of waiting have crushed him. He is almost broke and has not painted for 18 months. Tetro isn’t sure he ever wants to return to an occupation that was at best imitative, at worst publicly humiliating.

“I would like to say to you, right now, that I’m never going to paint again for a living. Yet I can’t say that and be truthful.” But if Tetro does return to brushes and paint, “you can bet . . . I’d stamp ‘copy’ or ‘reproduction’ or ’emulation’ all over the back of it.”

If there is one positive note in his present situation, Tetro says, it is the continuing support of friends.Such as banker Ketner: “I like Tony very much. A gracious guy who has always been there when you need him.”

Such as attorney George Porter: “Tony is very likable, very flamboyant, very artistic . . . and very talented.” Seven hundred of those close friends gathered recently at the Clarion Hotel in nearby Ontario to celebrate Tetro’s 40th birthday. The men were in tuxedos, the women wore gowns–and the huge birthday cake was a work of art. It showed a one-eyed Tony Tetro painting a Picasso.

Copyright 1991 Los Angeles Times.
Published Sunday, January 20, 1991.

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