VANITY FAIR: THE PRINCE, THE FLASH, AND THE FORGER
Prince Charles was thrilled when a fast-talking hustler named James Stunt loaned 17 masterpieces to his celebrated art collection. But what happens when a Picasso isn’t a Picasso?
APRIL 2020 MARK SEAL
The paintings delighted Prince Charles.
They had arrived at Clarence House, his royal residence in London, in February 2017: a collection that would eventually comprise 17 magnificent works, including pieces by Picasso, Dali, Monet, and Chagall, that humbled the prince with their power and provenance. A supreme arbiter of art, as both a lifelong collector and an artist himself, Charles listened eagerly as Malcolm Rogers, former curator of the National Portrait Gallery in London and retired director of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, explained the significance of two paintings by Sir Anthony van Dyck, England’s leading court painter in the 17th century, that were propped up against the royal residence’s wall. The prince, Rogers recalls, seemed “enthusiastic” to hear their glorious histories.
Rogers was well acquainted with the source of the paintings. They were on loan from James Stunt, the 38-year-old gold tycoon who has come to define decadence in contemporary London. The ex-husband of Petra Ecclestone, heiress daughter to Formula 1 billionaire Bernie Ecclestone, Stunt was known to buy 200,000 pounds’ worth of Cristal Champagne in a single evening at Tramp, London’s infamous members-only nightclub. His godfather was an alleged mob boss, his business partners’ offices had recently been raided by the police, and he traversed the city in a traffic-stopping fleet of luxury cars—part of his collection of 200 Rolls-Royces, Bentleys, Ferraris, and Lamborghinis— that made even the queen’s motorcade seem modest by comparison.
Stunt had also assembled a staggering collection of private art. In 2014, after he loaned five exceptional British paintings to the Boston museum, he told Rogers of his ambitions. “He wanted to put a collection together for his daughter to inherit, with a view to lending things to museums,” Rogers recalls. “He always presented himself as a very charitable and positive person, and he was wanting to support the Prince of Wales.”
With his latest gift, Stunt had succeeded in gaining the prince’s attention. Charles, thrilled with the paintings, knew that art of such stature deserved to be hung in a place of supreme honor. The pieces were soon dispatched to the destination closest to the prince’s heart: Dumfries House, the sprawling mansion on 2,000 acres in Scotland that Charles had renovated at a cost of more than 45 million pounds and turned into the headquarters for his personal charity, the Prince’s Foundation.
“Dear James,” the prince wrote Stunt, “it was with a great sadness that you were unable to come to Clarence House the other day when Malcolm Rogers appeared with your marvelous pictures.” The prince expressed his excitement over the artworks, “especially the two van Dycks,”and his pleasure at displaying them at Dumfries House. Thanking Stunt for his generosity, he added that the paintings would “provide us with much needed security as an asset for the charity if things ever get tough.” Stunt framed the letter and displayed it in his office.
But the paintings turned out to be more of a liability than an asset. Last November, in a front-page story that touched off a royal scandal, the Mail on Sunday reported that 4 of the 17 paintings were fakes. According to the paper, the works by Picasso, Dali, Monet, and Chagall insured by the Prince’s Foundation for 104 million pounds—were actually cheap imitations by Tony Tetro, a California artist known as the world’s greatest living art forger. Citing their display at Dumfries House, which seemed to confer a royal seal of approval, Stunt had valued the paintings at 217 million pounds and had tried to use them to secure massive loans to pay off his equally massive debts. Prince Charles, it appeared, had been scammed.
The queen was said to be highly upset, and the paintings were swiftly taken down, “It is extremely regrettable that the authenticity of these particular paintings, which are no longer on display, is now in doubt,” a spokesperson for the Prince’s Foundation tells Vanity Fair. Art experts asked: Who is vetting the royal art?
Followed by another question: Who the hell is James Stunt?
The man behind the gates of the grand white town house in Belgravia, one of London’s most affluent and elegant districts, is under self-imposed “house arrest.” He has not left these premises for any extended period for the past year. His numerous bank accounts are blocked or busted, his fleet of luxury cars locked away or impounded. His vast collection of art—once his passport to royal palaces and other enclaves of the elite— has been reduced to inventory lists for potential lenders.
Depending on whom you ask, James Stunt is either a billionaire, or he’s broke. Either the loving former husband of one of the richest women on the planet, or an abusive ex who threatened to kill his wife and called his father-in-law a “cunt” in divorce court. Either one of the world’s most prodigious collectors of art, or a desperate-for-cash commissioner of forgeries, which he tried to pass as real to mend his shattered finances.
The door behind the black iron gates swings open. Before me stands one of Stunt’s “heavies,” as they have been called, the lone servant on duty today from the multitudes who once served him. Escorted into a sparse upstairs living room, I await the arrival of the master, who I am told is on an urgent business call.
Forty-five minutes later, Stunt ascends the staircase from his bedroom: bone-thin, hair slicked back, chain-smoking Marlboro Golds. Despite the royal scandal swirling around him, he has not granted anyone an interview since 2018. He welcomes me effusively with a rapid-fire smattering of compliments, apologies, and man hugs. He hadn’t really been on a call, he immediately confesses. He was just stalling for time.
“I never lie about anything,” he repeatedly assures me.
He begins with a blunt and unequivocal denial. None of the art he loaned to Dumfries House, he insists, was fake. “Basically, it’s a complete smear campaign,” he says. “I’ll tell you exactly what’s happened here.” He then embarks on a nonstop rant, as he does almost every day and at all hours of the night on Instagram, issuing urgent, profanity-laced dispatches from his bachelor pad turned bunker.
As Stunt tells it, he is the victim of all manner of dastardly conspiracies. “They’ve turned my world upside down,” he confides. “They” being his former father-in-law, Bernie Ecclestone, and Lord Jonathan Harold Esmond Vere Harmsworth, the fourth Viscount Rothermere and publisher of the Mail. The newspaper, Stunt says, is out to destroy him with a “Machiavellian draconian attack.” It’s because of such powerful enemies that he was declared bankrupt last year, that his personal spending was limited by court order to 1,000 pounds a week, that his good name was sullied by what he calls “this art nonsense.”
“They’ve cost me 30 million pounds! ” he rages. ” I can’t do business. My accounts are frozen, okay? You have no idea the nightmare I’m in right now. Quite frankly, many people have committed suicide over this. I’ve not been indicted or arrested for any offense ever, let alone charged. Do you understand? A very rich man is living like a deadbeat right now because of what they’ve done to me.”
I look around the sunny living room, the walls covered in art: a Monet landscape, a surrealistic Dali, two Warhol portraits, a Velasquez bull, and more.
“You’re living like a deadbeat?” I ask.
“Yeah! Because my money is all blocked! I am in a house which is brilliant. But you know what? I know you might think I sound like a snob to say this, but I have had to let my household go! I put all my cars into storage!”
“You’re looking at me like I’m crazy,” Stunt tells me. “My IQ is 18 above Einstein’s.”
Questions from Mail reporters are left at his door, but he is largely alone, his legions of friends, business associates, and even his family gone. I mention someone he was close to, whom I might call for comment. “He was nothing,” Stunt snaps. “He was my bitch. He was someone I used to fucking pay to do fucking coke with. I’m not joking. I was like The Wolf of Wall Street. Not breaking the law, but having a laugh: ‘Fuck it—let’s do some coke and let’s chuck some midgets at a wall.'”
Soon he abruptly excuses himself, “to go to the bathroom,” as he does periodically throughout our conversation, returning minutes later to unleash a fresh rant.
“Are you doing cocaine now?” I ask him at one point.
No, he says. He has done cocaine, sure. But his frenzy is due to ADHD, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Cocaine makes him calm, which he certainly is not at this moment.
“You’re looking at me like I’m crazy,” he says. “Listen, I’m one of the most sane people I know. My IQ is 18 above Einstein’s. I have to keep talking like a conspiracy nutter because they have engineered this perfectly.” He loaned the paintings to Prince Charles anonymously, he points out. So how could the supposed forger, Tony Tetro, even know that they were at Dumfries House, “unless he was told by Bernie Ecclestone or Viscount Rothermere?” (Rothermere, according to a spokesperson, plays “no role” in assigning stories at the Mail. Ecclestone did not respond to requests for comment.)
Besides, Stunt continues, even if a few of the paintings were fakes—which they absolutely, most definitely were not—where’s the crime? “I loaned these because I believe in the Prince’s Foundation,” he says. “I love the Prince of Wales.” His voice rises to a shout. ” I benevolently loaned, okay? So there was no financial crime because I am, for free, loaning art for them to put on display.”
Stunt grows emotional as he speaks of the prince. In 2017, when Stunt’s brother died of an accidental drug overdose, Charles “wrote a beautiful, touching letter” to be read at his funeral. That same year, when Stunt was going through his divorce, the prince was “such a lovely man” that he offered to put Stunt’s name next to the paintings at Dumfries House, despite all the bad publicity. (“I said, ‘No, Your Royal Highness.’ “) He would never do anything to hurt Charles. “I revere my royal family,” he says. “I feel really uncomfortable talking about him because it looks like I’m a horrible name-dropper.”
Did Prince Charles call him after the scandal over the paintings erupted? I ask.
“I am not going to talk about Prince Charles!” he shouts. “You’ve got Prince Charles on the brain! You keep trumping on this stupid Tetro shit! Let’s make it clear for the billionth time, because I’m losing my temper towards you, it didn’t fucking happen, okay?”
He continues for another 10 minutes before excusing himself, once again, to descend to his bathroom below.
The Saga of James Robert Frederick Stunt begins days after his birth, in 1982, when baby James gazed up from his baptism bath at his godfather: the alleged mob kingpin Terry Adams, who was later convicted of money laundering.
James grew up in Virginia Water—the most expensive real estate in the United Kingdom after London—the son of a self-made man who rose from public housing to amass a fortune in corporate printing. “My father wasn’t a gangster,” Stunt says. “I’m not saying my godfather is a gangster; I’m not saying he’s not.”
James received a stellar education at the finest schools money could buy. At 15, his father gave him a flat in London and a black American Express card. “I could spend whatever the fuck I wanted, because he was picking up the tab,” Stunt recalls. At 17, he met a Libyan oil trader in a private club. The man asked him what he knew about oil. “What don’t I know about oil?” James lied. He connected the Libyan to a friend, and—just like that—a deal was done, each party giving James a commission of 2 million pounds.
Stunt got involved in shipping and ran “the world’s largest private armada,” he once told Tatler magazine. An avid gambler, he claimed to have won “the world’s largest bet,” pocketing more than 45 million pounds. Soon, as he puts it, he was a “famous face,” running with London’s first families: the Rothschilds, the Goldsmiths, the al-Fayeds. When he stepped into a casino, whether in London, Monaco, Las Vegas, or Macao, a 5-million-pound line of credit was at his disposal.
One evening, at a Jay-Z and Beyoncé party in London, he saw her: Petra Ecclestone, then 17, the youngest daughter of Formula 1 king Bernie Ecclestone. Petra lived in a world even more rarefied than Stunt’s: flying around the world on her father’s private jet, being driven to school in a Ferrari, waiting to receive her share of a trust fund worth 4.5 billion pounds. A mutual friend set them up on a blind date, and Stunt came roaring up to the Ecclestone home in his Lamborghini. Thinking he’d impress Petra, he took her to Crockfords, the private casino, where he promptly blew 100,000 pounds. “I was trying to be Flash Harry,” he recalls.
But that night, he realized that money wasn’t the key to Petra’s heart. No amount he spent was ever going to impress her. So he dropped the big spender act and tried something novel: just being himself, “It was really love at first sight—when she actually saw the real me, not the flash dickhead,” he says. “I’m not really like that. I’m not a showy guy, but I feel I have to be a showy guy. Because I’ve got small-dick syndrome, without the small dick.”
One night, on a double date with Petra’s sister, Tamara, and her then boyfriend, the British entrepreneur Gavin Dein, the group began discussing a subject Stunt knew absolutely nothing about: art. As the names of artists he didn’t recognize flew by, he felt embarrassed. “I’ve got 95 percent perfect recall,” he says. “On any subject that ever came up, I could B.S. my way around it.” But art left him feeling like “a glimmering moron.” Vowing to make sure he never experienced such humiliation again, he began researching art. “The more I started to learn, the more obsessed I became with it,” he says.
What he discovered surprised him. Art, like gambling, shipping, oil, and gold, is also a racket—and the spoils go to those who are smartest at playing the game. Stunt started by buying old masters—Rubens, van Dyck, Sir Peter Lely—paying top dollar for them at auctions and galleries. Then, after a year of fevered purchases, he met the art expert who would become his mentor: Philip Jonathan Clifford Mould, a British art dealer who separates forgeries from masterpieces each week as host of the hit BBC program Fake or Fortune?
One day, Stunt recalls, Mould pointed to an expensive painting. “James,” Mould told him, “this Lely is 400,000 pounds. But I can sell it to you for 80,000.”
“How on earth could you do that?” Stunt asked.
“Because I paid 6,000 pounds for it,” Mould replied.
The secret, Mould explained, was finding works known as sleepers—paintings that have been kept for decades, or even centuries, in private hands. As a result, they are often mislabeled or undervalued by experts, meaning they can be snapped up for a steep discount. The paintings, in other words, aren’t perceived as valuable. But if that perception could be changed—if they were certified, say, to be long-lost masterpieces—then a small initial investment could be turned into a fortune.
In 2011, after they’d lived together for several years, Stunt presented Petra with a 12-carat diamond ring.
“How did you propose?” I ask.
“Very romantically,” he says. “I was like, ‘How are we going to get this past your fucking parents?’ “
Petra’s father, Stunt says, was “a pushover.” The problem was her mother, Slavica Ecclestone, a former Armani model from Croatia who stood a foot taller than her husband. “I call her Lady Macbeth,” Stunt says. “She obviously wasn’t happy about it. But she doesn’t like anyone. Prince William wouldn’t be good enough for her. Someone like me? Oh, he is nouveau riche.”
The couple were married at the turreted Odescalchi Castle, outside Rome. “A Fairytale Wedding Fit for a Formula One Princess,” Hello magazine proclaimed. The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra performed, as did Eric Clapton, Andrea Bocelli, the Black Eyed Peas, and Alicia Keys. Slavica reportedly kept the arrangements hidden from Bernie until it was time for him to pay the bill: $19 million.
For their honeymoon, the newlyweds boarded a private jet and flew to their new home in Los Angeles: Candyland, built by television mogul Aaron Spelling and his wife, Candy. At 56,500 square feet, with 14 bedrooms and 27 baths, it was the largest house in L.A. Petra bought it for $85 million in cash, sight unseen—at the time, the highest price ever paid for a house in Los Angeles. James renamed it Stunt Manor. It boasted a screening room, bowling alley, beauty salon, billiards room, and gift wrapping room, plus a wine cellar where Stunt, who doesn’t drink, stored the world’s largest collection of Petrus. It was so big, so grandiose, that tour buses passed by twice a day. One day, as a goof, Stunt boarded one of the buses, only to step off when it arrived at the mansion—his mansion. “This is my house,” he told the startled sightseers. Then he “brought them all in and took them on a tour, so they could see it.”
The house was the couple’s calling card. TMZ trailed them. Charities sought their largesse. Movie stars and oil moguls befriended them. Backed in part by a 10-million-pound revolving credit line guaranteed by his father-in-law, Stunt ran a London-based bullion company. “He owns gold mines,” Petra proudly told a reporter.
Stunt also dived even deeper into the art world, loaning masterworks to hallowed institutions like the Palace of Westminster. At some point, as he looked for sleeper paintings he could snap up at bargain prices, he had an idea: Why not commission his own works, modeled on the paintings of famous artists? He doesn’t deny ordering up fake art. He says he did it for fun, for laughs. His choice of a forger, however, would prove to be trouble.
They met through a rare Ferrari. Stunt coveted the car, only to be told by the dealer that it had already been sold—to an American artist named Tony Tetro. A former altar boy who lost his job selling furniture, Tetro switched to forgery after reading a book called Fake! It was based on the life of Elmyr de Hory, an art forger who fooled galleries and collectors worldwide and was featured on the cover of Time as “Con Man of the Year.”
I could do this, Tetro remembers thinking as he read the book. “And I did.”
Tetro’s astounding skill at forgery enabled him to buy so many Ferraris and Rolls-Royces that his neighbors suspected him of being a drug dealer. But it soon landed him in jail. In 1989, a Los Angeles gallery owner was busted for selling Tony Tetro fakes as real. Seeking a plea deal, he visited Tetro’s studio wearing a wire. When Tetro admitted to having faked a Chagall, more than two dozen officers, some in bulletproof vests, burst into his home studio. Tetro was charged with 67 felony counts of forgery. “They ripped my house apart,” he recalls. He served nine months in a work-furlough program, where he suffered the indignity of painting murals promoting traffic safety.
Once he was released, Tetro came up with a new way to employ his skill as an artistic copycat. For around $20,000, he would bang out a replica painting—done “in the style of” a famous artist—for wealthy clients seeking to impress their friends on the cheap.
Now, one evening in 2014, Tetro’s phone rang at his home in Newport Beach, California. It was Stunt. By that point, the gold trader and his wife seemed to be growing apart. Stunt liked to go out and shower his friends with $200,000 worth of Cristal; Petra, who considered it a “huge effort to get dressed up,” was usually in bed by eight. Stunt found himself alone in his sprawling manor, awake at all hours of the night. Before long, he grew addicted to the prescriptions for morphine and Valium he was popping “like Smarties” for his insomnia. His weight ballooned until he became “the fattest fuck alive. I could have eaten Jabba the Hutt.”
“I talked to him on the phone for hours,” Tetro recalls. “He’s up all night long, and he didn’t have anybody to talk to. Because at three in the morning, who could he call? He could call me.”
Thus began a series of midnight conversations about art and the art business. “He wanted me to do a Picasso matador for him,” Tetro recalls. On his computer, Tetro found a Picasso of a woman and a matador and used Microsoft Paint— “a poor man’s Photoshop”—to eliminate the woman. Then, using coffee and tea, he artificially “aged” the painting, as well as the wooden stretcher bars on the back of the canvas, to produce an authentic-looking “patina.” The work, he says, could never fool an expert. The pigments alone would be a dead giveaway, and for a while he was required by the court to sign his real name on the back of his work. But to an amateur eye, the imitation was good enough to pass as a real Picasso.
When the painting was done, Tetro drove up to Los Angeles to deliver it to Stunt Manor. “He greeted me at the door,” the forger says. “We went into his den, and he’s giving me a tour of his paintings: his Constables, his Joshua Reynolds, and the other British old masters.” Impressed with the fake Picasso, Stunt commissioned 10 more copies of masterpieces: a Rembrandt, a Van Gogh, more Picassos. “He said, ‘I want them to look real,’ ” Tetro says. “I knew exactly what that meant: He wanted them for decoration to impress his friends.”
Stunt insists he never tried to conceal the provenance of his Tetro knockoffs. “I know Tony Tetro,” he tells me. “I’ve openly admitted that. I used to say, ‘Everyone, look at this painting. It’s a Rembrandt, but it’s not. It’s by Tony Tetro.’ I do have art from him, because he was my friend.”
“Where is that art?” I ask.
“In the cupboards! Fucking gathering dust!”
Working for Stunt wasn’t always pleasant. “He’s volatile—he goes up and down like an escalator,” Tetro says. “On the phone sometimes, he would yell at me because I was taking too much time. I’d go, ‘I’m not your bitch. Why are you yelling at me?’ But in person, he never raised his voice at me. I like James. Everybody knows he’s got his demons, but he is very generous.”
When Tetro was done with the replicas, Stunt paid him with a genuine painting by Sir Joshua Reynolds, which Tetro sold at Christie’s for $175,000. “I was owed around $200,000,” he recalls. “But I was happy with the 175.”
The last time Tetro saw Stunt was in London, in September 2017. He arrived at Stunt’s town house in Belgravia to find him living alone, in the midst of what would be called Britain’s biggest divorce. Two months earlier, the police had been called after Petra locked herself in the bathroom at the couple’s home in London; her father testified in court that Stunt had once threatened to “blow her head off.” Clad in a bathrobe, Stunt took to Instagram for the first time to denounce the “horrific allegations” being made against him—all of which had been “perpetrated by an evil dwarf named Bernie Ecclestone… a filthy second-hand car dealer.” Stunt lost everything in the divorce, including custody of his three children.
Petra declined to comment for this story. But in November, she posted a response to Stunt’s attacks on Instagram. “Firstly, let’s shatter the James Stunt myth,” she said. “The man is not a billionaire and never was. Naively I funded his life for our entire marriage and paid for his cars, his watches, his art (the few real ones), even his failed company.” James, she said, spent most of his days in bed, high on prescription drugs. “In some respects, I blame myself for helping create the monster he has now become. I gave him the access to money and the more he had the worse he became.” Petra, who took down the post after two days, also said she had met Tony Tetro “at our house in L.A. during the time that James was commissioning the paintings to be made. It is therefore somewhat baffling to me to hear James say that the paintings are real.”
During his visit in London, Tetro didn’t see much of Stunt, who spent his days sleeping. One night, Stunt hosted a dinner for Tetro with his godfather, the alleged crime boss Terry Adams, and Adams’s wife, Ruth, who prepared a traditional British dinner of chicken, Yorkshire pudding, and beans. Stunt also gave him a tour of his office, where he kept a golden throne—”he said it was from King Tut’s tomb”—along with several framed letters from Prince Charles. He even showed Tetro a photograph of him and the prince, both in tuxedos.
“His elbow was touching Prince Charles, and that was a big deal for him,” Tetro recalls. “He said, ‘Look, I’m touching him.’ He was very proud of the fact that he was associated with Prince Charles.”
It was Stunt’s pride that ultimately led to his undoing. In March 2018, he gave an explosive interview to Tatler. In addition to blasting his ex-wife for turning into “a girl who’s had a lobotomy and gone to Jonestown,” he revealed that he had loaned a collection of paintings to Dumfries House.
The loan had been arranged through Michael Fawcett, chief executive of the Prince’s Foundation and a longtime aide to Prince Charles. A former royal valet, Fawcett was caught up in what became known as the Royal Butler Trial, which led to him being investigated for selling royal gifts and keeping a percentage of the profits. He was eventually cleared, but the incident led to his nickname: Fawcett the Fence.
I ask Stunt if he dealt with Fawcett directly on the loaned paintings. “I dealt with everyone, ” he says. “And Michael is one of the best people I know. An amazing man! There’s nothing nefarious about Michael Fawcett.”
The Mail pounced on the revelation. “Why Does Prince Charles Let James Stunt Loan Him Art?” the paper demanded. Royal-watchers, it reported, were “aghast” that the controversial Fawcett had become “chums” with the flashy Stunt. To make matters worse, Stunt had tried to use the paintings as collateral to secure loans to pay off his mounting debts, including a reported $3.9 million to Christie’s. (“Any such encumbrance becomes irrelevant in the context of the Dumfries House collection,” he said in one court document.) As proof of their authenticity, according to the Mail, he produced an official letter from the Prince’s Foundation, written on behalf of Fawcett, which confirmed that the artworks were “on public display within various rooms of Dumfries House for public enjoyment.”
Dumfries House is one of the few places in the world, outside of major museums, that can confer legitimacy on a work of art simply by hanging it on the wall. The grand property was in the process of being auctioned off in 2007 when Prince Charles stepped in to rescue it. “Christie’s vans were literally rumbling across London, on their way to Dumfries House to pick up the furniture and paintings, and sell it all off,” says Georgina Adam, a respected London art expert. Using his own wealth as collateral, Charles personally guaranteed a loan of 20 million pounds to preserve the house, and then led the charge to raise 45 million more for restoration.
Today, everything at Dumfries is considered sacred for its authenticity—from the furnishings, which include 10 percent of all the Thomas Chippendale furniture ever created, to the extensive collection of art, including a room filled with watercolors by Charles. Visitors are greeted by a video of Charles himself, praising the house’s “unique 18th-century character,” and the prince frequently takes a motorcade from Balmoral Castle or the royal train from London to revel in the house and its art. “He loves it here!” says one longtime volunteer at the Prince’s Foundation.
In fact, no one at Dumfries House ever vetted the paintings that Stunt loaned the prince. The royal family has long employed art curators, most notoriously Sir Anthony Blunt, who confessed in 1964 to having served as a KGB spy. Today, that role falls to Tim Knox, director of the Royal Collection. But the paintings at Dumfries are not part of the Royal Collection; they are mostly loans from anonymous donors like Stunt. So Tetro’s replicas went on the walls unchecked, one more addition to the house’s vast bounty of art. The prince, it appeared, had unwittingly authenticated the art by virtue of royal association.
Stunt showed off a photo of him and Prince Charles. “Look,” he said, “I’m touching him.”
It’s an association that Stunt himself mentions with pride. “I am so rich, I’ve got a million dollars on my wrist,” he tells me, flashing his 101 Audemars Piguet. A man of such wealth and taste, he suggests, would have no motive to dupe Prince Charles’s foundation. Besides, he continues, “people like Patty Hearst” go to Dumfries House. How could all these “big prestigious people” not look at the paintings and immediately recognize they were fakes? “It’s a joke,” he says. “A tissue of lies to frame a good man.”
Back in California, however, Tony Tetro was panicking. Some of his fakes, according to what he calls “buzz ” in the art world, were being exhibited as genuine masterpieces someplace in Scotland. ” I didn’t know where Dumfries House is,” Tetro says. “I did find out that Stunt had something to do with it, and he was in trouble. From what I’ve been told, he was trying to get money through a loan.”
Informed that 4 of the 11 paintings he made for Stunt were hanging at the Prince’s Foundation, Tetro dug up photographs he had kept of them. While he recognized the paintings as his, the titles were invented: Dali’s famed Corpus Hypercubus (1954) was now dubbed Dying Christ, and Picasso’s On the Beach was called Liberated Bathers. There was also Monet’s Lily Pads 1882 (“ridiculous as a name,” says Tetro’s representative, “because Monet didn’t move to Giverny or build the water lily garden until later”) and Chagall’s Paris Con Amor (“to my knowledge no Chagall painting ever had a Spanish name”). The last one came easiest to Tetro, who has imitated more than 200 of Chagall’s works. “I’ve painted more Chagalls than Marc Chagall,” he told the Mail.
Tetro was terrified. He had already served time for forgery, and he was determined not to let it happen again. “After I got out of jail, I didn’t make a penny for four and a half years,” he says. “I had to sell my cars, my house, everything. My attorneys went through me like an enema.” So he flew to London and met with the media. “Prince Charles Hit by Major Counterfeit Art Scandal,” the Mail declared in a front-page headline.
What puzzled Tetro was why Dumfries House accepted art that was so obviously inauthentic. “They’re intentionally done so you can tell instantly that they’re not real,” he says. “If they were inspected by somebody knowledgeable, this would have stopped.”
Stunt, in fact, had asked several art experts to authenticate at least one of the paintings he loaned to Prince Charles’s foundation. Nicolas Descharnes, considered the leading authority on Salvador Dali, says he received an urgent call from Stunt in May 2015. “He was so happy!” recalls Descharnes. “He said he had discovered ‘a new Dali.’ ” It was a lost masterpiece, the ultimate sleeper—the third depiction of Dali’s Corpus Hypercubus (1954). The original is displayed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art; a study is on display in the Vatican Museum.
“He wanted me to come to London immediately,” says Descharnes, who had helped Stunt purchase authentic Dali pieces in the past. Examining a photo of the painting, he noticed that its back bore a stamp from the collection of the late John Peter Moore. But when he called Moore’s widow, she told him that the painting was “never in our collection.” Stunt flew Descharnes to London and drove him to his office in his Ferrari for a midnight examination of the painting. It took the Dali expert only a few minutes with his magnifying glass to reach a verdict: The painting “stunk.”
“In my opinion it’s not by Dali,” he told Stunt. He felt sure he had seen the painting on an Australian television show, along with an artist identified as the world’s foremost art forger, “It’s probably by Tony Tetro,” he told his host.
“I know Tony Tetro,” Descharnes recalls Stunt saying. “Let’s call him.”
Stunt put Descharnes on the phone with Tetro. But the expert stood firm, and Stunt grew “quite upset,” he says. When he demanded a second opinion, Descharnes suggested Frank Hunter, director of the Salvador Dali Archives. He promised not to mention his own meeting with Stunt, so that Hunter would remain “blind.” Back in France, Descharnes emailed Stunt a four-page report “which explains my negative opinion. I’m sorry and understand you were upset.”
He thought that was the end of it. Then, last summer, Descharnes heard from Hunter, who sent him emails from individuals representing Stunt. Descharnes was surprised to find his own email—which he says had been “altered” to completely misrepresent his conclusion. “I am pleased to confirm that in my professional opinion…the two pieces of art you asked me to see are in fact original Dali,” read the email. “I am very happy to give you this conclusion, that the two pieces are beautiful work and a great discovery.” Adds Hunter, “When I saw the name Stunt in the email, I thought it was just that: a stunt. I was quite shocked to learn that Prince Charles was involved.”
Other experts say they were also approached by middlemen for Stunt, who was looking to take out millions of pounds in loans using the Dumfries House paintings as collateral. “They came to me with the paintings for a loan,” says one Europe-based art dealer. “There was an early Picasso, which would have been worth around 30 million, and there were some Monets. They were telling me about Dumfries House. They said it was under the patrimony of Prince Charles, and James Stunt was very good friends with Prince Charles. Prince Charles is a painter himself and he has very good taste—the royal family has a very good collection. So we were thinking: Okay, how can this go wrong?”
The dealer requested full documentation, provenance, and catalog entries, which any 100-year-old Picasso would have in abundance. Instead, he was sent only a single, sketchy invoice that read: “Nahmad Gallery, 1 Picasso, $30 million.” “It was obviously a fake,” the dealer says. He rejected the loan.
Stunt points to other paintings in his collection as evidence that the work he loaned to Prince Charles is not a fraud. “This is a Monet!” he told me during my visit to his town house, pointing to a landscape near the stairwell: Village de Roche-Blond an Soleil Couchant, 1889. “That painting has never been down to Dumfries House. I have lots of art! I am one of the biggest collectors in the world! Did Tony Tetro knock out everything else?”
But in London, another witness came forward with a story about Village de Roche-Blond that seems straight out of a spy novel. One afternoon last October, London antiques dealer Ian Towning, the flamboyant, mop-topped star of the British show Posh Pawn, was approached by several mysterious individuals. They identified themselves as “middlemen” for an extremely affluent, unnamed individual who was looking to sell a Monet valued at 20 million pounds. Towning, who goes to his Chelsea antiques emporium each day bedecked in diamonds and gold and is usually sipping his first flute of Champagne by 11 a.m., was intrigued. A meeting was set for October 29.
At the appointed hour, the middlemen arrived in an SUV with dark windows to ferry Towning in high secrecy to the collector’s home. Accompanied by a valuation expert he brought along to help him examine the Monet, he was escorted into an elegant town house in Belgravia. The collector was late, so Towning had time to look around.
“I looked at the sofa; nobody would want it for a dump,” he recalls. “His coffee table—well, the man has a lot to learn.” And on the wall, the Monet, Village de Roche-Blond. Towning and the expert began examining it. The sky, the signature—it was “all wrong,” says Towning. Turning to the expert, he mouthed a single word: “fake.”
Then Stunt appeared. “In he comes,” Towning recalls, “dressed in this tracksuit. He sat down very fidgety. He had a cigarette, just puffing away. Then he took the cigarette and busted it out on the coffee table. My God!”
The meeting was brief. A few days later, Towning called Stunt to give him the bad news. “They get it straight from the hip,” he says. “People will say, ‘What do you think of this?’ And I’ll say, ‘Darling, it’s a piece of junk.’ “
Then Towning spoke to an associate about what happened, and his tale wound up running in the Mail. Stunt exploded on Instagram. “Peasants,” he said of Towning and his team, accusing the antiquities dealer of libeling his artwork. Matthew Steeples, a friend of Stunt’s, insists that the Monet has been certified as genuine by “leading experts.” He dismisses Towning as “a man who appears on a TV show where desperate people flog their rubbish to get cash. If anyone is a fake, it’s him.”
Spurred by the avalanche of negative publicity, Stunt fell back on the instincts that made him a fortune in gambling: He bet everything on the supposed Monet in his town house. Taking to Instagram once again, he announced that he was putting Village de Roche-Blond up for auction on his website, with a minimum bid of 4.5 million pounds, 10 percent of which he would donate to the Prince’s foundation and a children’s charity. If the painting is a fake, he pointed out, he would go to prison for selling a forgery—”Belmarsh,” he said, referring to the brutal men’s lockup outside London. But if the painting sells after being authenticated, then Stunt will have the vindication he seeks.
“See,” he texts me after posting the video. “Write about me saying, ‘Buy it or arrest me.’ “
The painting appears to have received four bids. But then, Stunt claimed on Instagram, the auction was suddenly halted. He has been barred by British prosecutors from selling his assets until the myriad claims against his holdings are adjudicated. So the Monet—if it is a Monet—remains on the wall of his town house.
The same can’t be said of the paintings that Stunt loaned Prince Charle s. All 17 of the pictures—not just the 4 singled out as forgeries—have been taken down by the Prince’s foundation. “The artwork in question has been removed from display at Dumfries House,” a royal spokesperson tells Vanity Fair. The foundation won’t say what it has done with the paintings; Stunt says they have not been returned to him. But while some of the artworks may be forgeries, Stunt’s distress over the incident appears to be genuine. It pains him to even think he might have brought dishonor to Prince Charles, a man he venerates above all. Nothing could be more painful to a royalist, after all, than causing a royal scandal.
“I would rather fall on my sword than let him have any embarrassment over this,” Stunt says. “He’s my future king.”
©2020 CONDÉ NAST. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.