By MICHAEL KUNZELMAN (AP)
BATON ROUGE, La. — 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.
No new charges have been filed against the Toyes since the FBI opened its investigation, but court records show that agents searched their Baton Rouge home on Sept. 30 and seized artwork and other items.
In court papers, an FBI agent said he interviewed Fuson and three other people who paid the Toyes nearly $100,000 for more than 40 paintings that appear to be Hunter forgeries. The FBI says the couple knew they were fakes.
The FBI’s probe has expanded beyond Louisiana. In January, an FBI agent took photographs of Hunter paintings at the Weisman Art Museum at the University of Minnesota. The paintings were a gift from a donor who had lived in the area. Lyndel King, the Weisman’s director, said FBI Special Agent Randolph Deaton IV informed the museum in March that five of its 38 Hunter paintings may be forgeries.
During an interview at their home this week, the Toyes denied creating or selling any forgeries.
“Once they leave our hands, we have no control over what happens to them,” Beryl Ann Toye said. “We had the real ones, and everyone else was faking them.”
The Toyes said FBI agents seized records that can prove their innocence.
“I didn’t confess anything because I didn’t do anything,” William Toye said.
The couple also is suspected of using an intermediary, Robert Edwin Lucky Jr., to sell forged paintings, Deaton wrote in court documents. Lucky told the FBI he met the Toyes about 10 years ago and has sold up to 100 paintings he obtained from them.
The FBI said Lucky learned from experts in Hunter’s works that the Toyes’ paintings were forgeries but continued to sell them, an allegation Lucky denies.
“I never sold a painting that I thought was a forgery,” he said.
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.
Fuson confronted the Toyes and asked for documentation that the paintings were authentic. He said Beryl Ann Toye then accused Fuson of forging the paintings.
The FBI took photos of paintings Fuson bought and showed them to an expert on Hunter’s work, who said they appeared to be forgeries.
Shannon Foley, a New Orleans art dealer, bought 19 paintings from the Toyes for $44,500. The expert consulted by the FBI said her paintings also appeared to be fake.
Foley, who has sued the Toyes, was reluctant to publicly discuss her story.
“Dealers don’t want to have their name associated with forgeries, but there were a lot of other reputable dealers who bought these paintings, too,” she said.
Beryl Ann Toye said FBI agents accused her of painting the forgeries, a claim she denies.
“They have no proof,” she said.