For nearly two decades, the artist Tony Tetro made a career out of pretending to be other people.
Tetro chronicles his rise from a central New York town to the ritzy hotels and dinner parties of Los Angeles in the memoir “Con/Artist: The Life and Crimes of the World’s Greatest Art Forger,” co-written with the journalist Giampiero Ambrosi. The book describes how a handful of dealers supported Tetro’s work, requesting a “Chagall” here and a “Miró” there, as if they were as innocuous as handcrafted furniture. For Tetro, what he was doing didn’t feel like organized crime or some glamorous double life. Mostly, he says, it felt simply like going to work.
In 1989, then-Los Angeles County District Attorney Ira Reiner called Tetro “the single largest forger of artwork in the United States.” Tetro, now 72, was convicted of art forgery in 1993 after a long trial and was released from prison in 1994. He continues to create original works in the style and technique of famous painters, but now he puts his own name on the art.
Tetro spoke with The Washington Post by video call from his home in Cheyenne, Wyo., along with Ambrosi, about his passion for art and how he learned to be a master imitator. (This interview has been edited for clarity and length.)
Q: How did you become interested in art?
A: The only class that I aced was art. My art teacher was very good in high school. She made art exciting — well, to me, anyway. Later, when I was married and living with my wife and daughter, I really couldn’t afford going out, so I would stay home and practice copying old masters. And not just old masters — everybody, Picasso to Rembrandt. I liked trying to understand what they were doing and why they did it. Like Renoir, often in his paintings, the face is in focus and he blurs out the rest. I got used to using Renoir’s colors. I got to know what he wanted to do with his work. Learning about each artist, I enjoyed that. At the time I started, I was selling furniture in L.A. I lived in Upland, and I had to drive 50 miles each way to work. It was horrible. When I got home, I was young and had all this energy, so I painted.
Q: Could you talk about the first time you forged an artwork? What prompted you to do it?
A: I wanted to pursue art, but I didn’t know how to get into the art world. So when I read this book, “Fake!” by Clifford Irving, when I was 22, it seemed clear this was the direction I could go in. If I were any older, it wouldn’t have happened. I would have thought about the repercussions, whereas I didn’t as a young man. After I read Clifford Irving, I foolishly thought I could do this.
My very first forgery was a Modigliani drawing, based on a famous Modigliani painting of a naked woman lying down. I did the same woman sitting up so the painting would have a kind of provenance. I practiced his signature over and over, and I bought a big old art book and I ripped out the empty pages in the front. I drew the piece on that, and I sold it for $1,600. That was wealth to me. I was lucky to sell it — it was a bad choice because it was too high-stakes, too valuable to start with. After that, I did lesser artists for a while. And, eventually, I was asked to do Chagall, Rembrandt, even Caravaggio — I love Caravaggio.
Q: Tell us about what your day-to-day life was like as a forger.
A: When I started doing forgery professionally, art dealers would ask me to do different artists. It was like a business. First, I went to a gallery owner to sell my work, but then word got out that I was doing well — doing these Dalís or Picassos or Chagalls, and different dealers contacted me. I’m not saying that every single dealer was selling fakes. I just had seven or eight. I didn’t have 70 or 80. But it got to the point where it didn’t seem illegal to me, it got past that point. I approached it like I was going to work, except I didn’t punch a time clock. I would get up every morning to have coffee and start painting. It felt like it was going to last forever.
Q: You’ve forged work by some prominent artists. How did you learn to imitate them so precisely?
A: I had to figure out how to do flesh. Flesh was very important, and I got lucky. When I walked into the Uffizi in Florence, an old man was sitting in the museum, copying a Caravaggio. And so I sat there and watched him and he helped me. He even gave me a brush, let me paint, and then he wiped off what I did. By copying, you learn a lot. You think about, why did he put this color here and that color there? How did he balance it? You get a very good sense of what’s going on.
Q: Are there any artists that are especially difficult?
A: Believe it or not, Picasso is one of the most difficult ones because he used to use house paint, and it was so liquid there’d be drips coming down. They look so simple, but they’re not simple. And somebody who knows Picasso can pick up on a fake — boom — just like that. So Picassos were always frustrating for me, and I didn’t do many of them because they’re so valuable.
Q: What makes a good forgery?
A: This is my thing, and I stand behind this: Provenance is more important than the painting itself. It’s so important that you have all the owners lined up from when the artist painted it. Forgery was really about coming up with evidence. Like with a Rembrandt work I made, I found an argument between two experts. One expert said a particular drawing existed. The other expert said it never existed. Well, I made it exist. That was enough to pass 34 years ago. It also takes a lot of reading and a lot of looking to make sure I’m painting right. It’s very important to know the artists — their little tics, the way they apply paint, the texture they put on their canvas. Dalí had no texture. Chagall had texture. Rembrandt, oh, he had beautiful texture. Everybody’s different. The little things are what make a painting seem real.
Q: In a way, you’ve rewritten art history. A less-generous observer might say you’ve edited it with errors. How do you think about it?
A: I’m not saying this was a victimless crime, but nobody that I know was harmed by my work. Because of the technology that we have today, I know that someday, more of my older works might be discovered and hurt somebody — then I’ll feel bad. But if I came across one of my works in a museum, I’d be proud, I think. Right now, say somebody’s looking at a painting and they’re admiring it. If they like it because it says Picasso, and it’s actually mine, are they hurt by that?
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