LAFAYETTE — A Baton Rouge man pleaded guilty to federal fraud charges Monday in a scheme to pass off forged paintings as works by north Louisiana folk artist Clementine Hunter.
William Toye, 79, who was also charged in the 1970s for allegedly forging Hunter’s work, pleaded guilty under an agreement that spares him from prison, but requires his cooperation in the ongoing investigation of the case.
He also faces a fine of up to $250,000 and a yet-to-be determined amount of restitution.
A federal grand jury last year indicted Toye; his wife, Beryl Ann Toye; and New Orleans art dealer Robert E. Lucky Jr. in an investigation of forged works by Hunter, a nationally recognized folk artist known for the simple depictions of plantation life that she painted from the 1930s until her death in 1988.
Beryl Ann Toye and Lucky are set for trial Aug. 15.
Most of the works in question were sold by Lucky, first out of a shop in Natchitoches and later in New Orleans, said FBI Special Agent Randolph Deaton, who testified at the plea hearing on Monday.
It is unclear precisely how many of the forged Hunter paintings were sold, but the current batch linked to William Toye began surfacing about 11 years ago, Deaton said.
Five forgeries were seized from Toye’s Baton Rouge home during a 2009 FBI raid, and prosecutors have alleged that several collectors in Baton Rouge, New Orleans and Michigan were defrauded, including one who paid $18,000 for a pair of fake Hunter paintings.
Deaton said that William Toye gave conflicting answers about who crafted the paintings when questioned during the 2009 FBI raid, at one point saying that his wife painted the forgeries, but also admitting that he had done the work himself.
Prosecutors said that to pass off the forgeries as authentic, the Toyes created fake bills of sale and other documents to give credence to a story that Beryl Toye had purchased the paintings from Hunter in the 1960s and 1970s.
Collectors had begun questioning the fake Hunter paintings before the federal investigation began, and some of the pieces were actually resold after the original buyers returned them for a refund, according to the indictment.
Thomas Whitehead, a retired journalism professor at Northwestern State University in Natchitoches who knew Hunter and has written about her work, said he and another collector bought 16 or 17 of the questionable paintings from Lucky about 10 years ago.
Whitehead said that he soon became skeptical of the works and got his money back.
Whitehead said at the time, he knew nothing of the Toyes, a connection he did not make until years later.
It is easy to see how collectors — even those familiar with Hunter’s work — could be fooled, Whitehead said.
The work of European masters is generally well-documented with detailed accounts of when famous pieces were bought and sold over the years, but Hunter produced thousands of paintings, mostly sold out of her front door, Whitehead said.
“There is no way to research it,” Whitehead said.
And, he said, folk art collectors often don’t conduct the same type of critical analysis as fine art collectors who might spend millions on a sought-after piece.
Hunter paintings can fetch prices ranging from a few thousand dollars up to $20,000, Whitehead said.
The recent charges are not Toye’s first brush with the law in connection with forged Hunter paintings.
New Orleans police arrested William Toye in 1974 in an investigation of 22 fake works of the folk artist, according to newspaper accounts at the time, but it is unclear what became of the case.
The Toyes had also claimed to be the owners of an authentic work by French painter Henri Matisse. The painting was involved in a controversy over forged art being sold through a Baton Rouge auction house in the 1990s, though no charges were filed in that case.