This lecture was part of the Divine Disorder Conference on the Conservation of Outsider Folk art that was organized and hosted by NCPTT. The conference was held February 15-16, 2012 on the campus of Northwestern University in Natchitoches, Louisiana.
Clementine Hunter; History of Forgery
The talk will present a biographical sketch of the folk artist, Clementine Hunter, born in southern Natchitoches Parish in late 1887 and died January 1, 1988.
Around 2000 a group of paintings appeared on the market supposedly by Hunter but later found to be painted by Beryl and William Toye. The lecture will include details of the fraud and how eventually law enforcement took what became an extraordinary criminal case and prosecution.
The subsequent investigation and legal proceedings resulted in a case study of an art fraud that spanned over 35 years. Extensive work by the FBI and leading scientific and analytical experts exposed a great range of forgeries by the Toyes, including modern masters such as Matisse and Degas.
The lead agent from the FBI on the case, Randolph Deaton IV, and Joseph Barabe, Senior Research Microscopist, McCrone Associates, Inc., will present details of the investigation and successful prosecution.
I briefly will give two parts of my presentation today. One will be, the approximate first half will be, a biography of Clementine Hunter. Not a very serious one or deep one but one to give you enough perspective tonight to see the African House mural, which will also be discussed this morning and then the last half of my talk will be an introduction to the forgery case that Mr. Deaton will continue with when I finish.
Clementine Hunter was an extraordinary person. She was born in the nineteenth century. We do not know for sure when she was born, but we do know from church records, that she was christened in the catholic church on March 19 and you don’t see the book here, it was the 1888 book. She was the natural daughter of Antoinette Adams as you will probably read in there.
She lived her first fifteen years with her family, approximately fifteen years; some of these dates are a little hazy in here. Around the turn of the last century at Hidden Hill Plantation, which is in south Cloutierville, which is south of Natchitoches, about 20 miles from here, at approximately the age of fifteen, her father moved to Melrose Plantation. He had been a sharecropper at Hidden Hill and when he came to Melrose, he became a tenant farmer, which had a different status in terms of earning some income, much more income.
At Melrose, Clementine was enrolled at school. She never liked school. She quit school. She would run away. So finally they quit trying to get her to go to school and she started working in the cotton fields picking cotton. Now, in order to set the site of Melrose in perspective, I need to give you a brief background on the history of Melrose Plantation.
It is a unique place in Louisiana, and one of the unique plantations in America. It was founded by the descendants of a freed African American slave named Marie Therese Coincoin. She had a relationship with a white businessman here in town named Thomas Pierre Metoyer. Their relationship resulted in a group of children, offspring, that became the ( ?) of the Creole community here. Her two sons went out in the country, further out in Natchitoches to Melrose and started a plantation and it was never known as Melrose then. It probably was called the Metoyer place. The two young men were named Metoyer. They started a plantation. They grew cotton. They harvested bear grease. They did other agricultural entities of that time. Now, you have to think a moment here. Here were Creole people owning slaves. It was a large slave holding operation and that operation built the first structure there. They built the initial house, which you’ll see tonight and they also built this cottage we believe, we call it to date the Yucca House and probably the house that we call African House was built as a storage house at that time. The dates are approximate. There is research being done continually on when these buildings were actually constructed.
Melrose stayed in the hands of the Metoyers until the 1840’s when during an economic downturn, they lost the plantation. They sold it to the Hertzog family, a white family and they owned it until about 1880 and in 1880 they sold it to a speculator from New Orleans who bought it entirely with the purpose of trying to make money off of it. In 1885 they sold it to Mr. Henry. Mr. Henry went out there and started a plantation. He inherited it and married about 1895 and that is the beginning of the Henry period or the Henry aristocracy of Melrose Plantation. They’re the ones that gave it the name Melrose.
Early on Mr. Henry, whose wife’s name was Cammie Garrett Henry. Her husband died and left her with six small children. So she had no other way to earn income. So she stayed out at Melrose and she began a very large agricultural operation. The primary crop was cotton and it took a large amount of labor. With running the plantation, Cammie was not able to travel or to go to the city and meet with interesting people, so she started inviting people to come to Melrose. It was not what you would call a formal artists’ colony but it was a place for writers and authors who came, particularly from the New Orleans area. Cammie converted some of these outbuildings at Melrose, including the Yucca House, into guest cottages. The guest cottage, Yucca House, originally held the last of the living slaves. The former slaves died in 1924 with Uncle Israel and Aunt Jane and that house became the cottage that a prominent New Orleans writer named Lyle Saxon lived in until his death in the 1940’s.
So Melrose in the 1920’s and 30’s became a place, a lot through the impetus of Lyle Saxon, where writers and artists came that could ride the trains within a mile of Melrose and they would come and do periods of visitation, sort of like a residency. They could create works at Melrose. One of Lyle Saxon’s most famous books was written in the 1930’s, Children of Strangers and it was set as a fictitious version of Melrose Plantation.
Now Clementine Hunter enters back into the picture. She left the field and became a house servant, a maid at the house and also became a cook. Now to set the stage for Clementine Hunter becoming an artist, we have to think a moment that she did not know what art was. She had no concept of art. It was not something she had been exposed to. She did have the opportunity to see artists work at Melrose and that’s where the concept of art developed. A prominent New Orleans artist, Alberta Kinsey, would come up and stay at the Melrose during various times of the year to paint. So she would see Alberta working and painting. Also, some of you may know Doris Ulmann, the photographer from New York. She came out and was taking photographs and picture at Melrose.
So Clementine saw people in creative environments and the story goes, and you know stories become true over time, the idea that Alberta Kinsey left discarded tubes of paint and Clementine asked for them and started painting. Now how do you (?) that one day. We do know, here’s an early photograph of her paintings, this is probably in the 1940’s, 1950’s, early 50’s. It’s a picture of her painting outside a little house. She had a sign up that said “Art Exhibit.” It started out at twenty-five cents a look and went up to fifty cents to look, and I believe before she left Melrose, it was up to a dollar to look. She had a little porch on her house, a little place where she put pictures to be exhibited that she wanted to sell and frequently, if you find one with a nail hole in it, you’ll know that’s a real one because she always used a hammer to put the pictures up. She did not have any other way to hang the pictures. I have one that I think is a really great one because it’s got a hole in it where she hung it outside the wall for people to look.
These are two examples of her early paintings. We can date this painting to the early 40’s. She had a self-taught style of art. She only painted things she knew and here’s another example of one from this early period. It’s almost like a wash, but it is with oil paint. She painted scenes she knew, stories she knew. Some were religious but most were scenes of plantation life. I have to pause here a moment because there’s so many layers to the story of Clementine Hunter and I must now jump for a moment to New York City in the 1930’s.
Two men that lived in New York at that time would later have a very important influence upon the life of Clementine Hunter. One of them was an interesting character named Frank Mineah. He was from Portland, New York and we know very little about him. He was from a working class family. He spent one semester at Columbia University in New York. We don’t know what happened there. We don’t know if he quit, flunked out or what. We just don’t know. He took a job at an international bookstore in New York City. Along the way, he met with and took up a relationship with Christian Bell. Christian Bell was French and he worked at the French Consulate in New York City. During the 1930’s, the late 30’s, Francois was getting blind and after extensive medical observations, they discovered he had inoperable cataracts. So Christian Bell decides that while François still has some vision, he needs to go out and show Francois the south. By now Francois has completely changed his name. He just created the character of Francois Mignon. He went from Frank Mineah, we think probably under the influence of Christian Bell. I have found some letters that were addressed to Frank Mignon and the Frank evolved into Francois Mignon. So by 1938 – 39, Frank Mineah will completely become Francois Mignon.
Christian Bell brought Francois and they came down to Natchez, Mississippi. Now this is kind of interesting. At that time, you would think that New Orleans would have been the social Mecca of this part of the world, but it actually it was not. It was Natchez, Mississippi. The old southern aristocracy was in Natchez. And Lyle and Miss Cammie were visiting in Natchez and they ran into Christian Bell and Francois Mignon and Cammie invited them to come visit Melrose on their way back. So they left Natchez, came to Melrose, then went back through New Orleans, and back to New York. When they returned to New York, Christian was posted to a new job, a counsel in Puerto Rico. He was going to have to move to Puerto Rico. Francois was going blind, was not able to read to work, what was he going to do. Well, Cammie started writing letters, inviting him to come live at Melrose, work with her on the gardens, and supposedly Francois had been involved in the restoration of the gardens of Versailles. Now in Portland, New York, he created this persona of being and landscape architect and a lawyer that worked outside of Paris.
Now when he came to Melrose, this is where the story gets important as a connection to Clementine. In 1939, on October 27th, Francois got on a train in New York City at Penn Station and headed to Shreveport. On that day, he started a journal called the Louisiana Journal. It later sort of became the plantation journal. By the time he left Melrose in 1969, he had written over 17,000 pages. He wrote six days a week, never on Saturdays and that journal chronicles a fascinating period of time of 30 years when the south was changing, the whole life changed from 1939 to 1969. Those 17,000 plus pages of journal are now housed at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. If you’re just really curious and want to read something fascinating, they have just digitized the first several hundred pages at Chapel Hill. If you will go to the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, to the southern archives, search Francois Mignon, you will find some of the pages are digitized. Absolutely fascinating reading because this part of the story, this all tangles up together, is that on December 19th, 1939, he had been at Melrose less than two months, he writes that the Negress wash lady came by and said she painted pictures and she’s going to bring me a picture. So that’s the first documented proof that we have that Clementine painted. From then on, we know all these stories about her work and art and painting at Melrose. It’s absolutely a fascinating insight.
I haven’t got the time to go through all of this but in the 1940’s another character entered the scene named James Register. He was from out here in the country of Louisiana and he lived in Oklahoma City in northern Oklahoma. He presented himself as a professor of ( ? ) at the University of Oklahoma. Later we found out he worked in the film library rewinding film. But you know, he created this character and then lived this life. Register and Francois become involved with promoting Clementine in the 1940’s. There’s all kinds of great stories, and they try to get Life magazine to do a spread on Clementine. They register mailed some old paintings to Life, Life doesn’t respond, they just keep the paintings and he can’t get the paintings back. There is correspondence about this and they saved everything. Besides the 17,000 pages of journal, there are another 6000 pages of correspondence at Chapel Hill and Francois did everything on a type writer. He couldn’t see to write so he put carbon paper, so you can see both sides of the correspondence. You’ll see the letter and you’ll see his response. He corresponded with Eleanor Roosevelt, with Alice B. Toklas. It’s just fascinating things. That’s one of the difficult parts of doing research, is you get sidetracked so easily with some of their stories.
This is a famous episode. In 1955, here at Northwestern, they had an exhibition of Clementine’s paintings, one of the early exhibitions. Now, it was interesting, the story goes, and there are different versions of these stories, because Francois wrote a version and sometimes other people wrote versions, is that they would not allow Clementine to come to the university because she was black and because there was a segregation policy. But the story goes, they brought her up here on a weekend and they opened the exhibit place and showed her the paintings and they had a little program printed. She went back home and painted a picture on the program of her visit to the museum on the exhibit. ( ? ) that is owned by a family here in Natchitoches that is here today.
Here’s a close up of her painting. She always marked her picture first with a pencil. That’s something the forgers didn’t always do, but there is her drawing marking a painting. This is the little house she lived in at Melrose Plantation. She lived there for most of the 40’s and 50’s. She lived out in (?) earlier. This is where we’re going tonight, the Africa House at Melrose. In 1955, and we know the date in June, Francois wakes up one morning with the idea, “why don’t we go upstairs in the Africa House, “ clean it out and why don’t we have Clementine paint pictures to put in the Africa House. Well he goes and asks her and she said okay, I’ll do it. So they send a truck to Natchitoches to buy plywood and this is in early June of 1955. By July the 25th, the paintings are finished and here are two views of the paintings at Melrose and you’ll see these tonight and one of our guests today did conversation work, he (?) discussion about conservation of the murals. There are nine murals that depict plantation life and they have become really, some of the iconic pictures of southern art, from the perspective of an insider, a person that actually lived the cotton picking, the Saturday nights at the honky tonk, and the wash days, the funerals, the wakes. These stories are told in these murals.
1955 was a good year. Here’s a page from The New Orleans Times-Picayune. They did a story. There was a color picture of the murals (?) right after they were completed. There’s a photograph of Clementine and Francois in the back of her house porch and there’s a picture of a house, Yucca House, in front where they were sitting. Francois had a sugar kettle they grew water lilies in. In 1977, there was a flood at Melrose and the water went under her house. She was scared of the water so she bought a house trailer and the house trailer she lived in until she died on January 1, 1988, and that house moved three times on Cane River. She moved to the first place and she didn’t like that too much. She moved on Ricks Place for awhile and then she decided at the age of 98, she had never owned a piece of property. So she bought a piece of property in the little town of Natchez, Louisiana and moved her trailer there and that’s where she was when she passed away.
This is a picture that we’re going to hear more about today, I just wanted to throw this in. Here are two conservators that came from the Kimble Museum in the summer of 1984 to do conservation work and I think it’s very special that one of the two conservators is here today. So this is really a follow up twenty eight years later, and I will kind of close my biographical sketch with just a couple of pictures here she painted. She never used an easel. She always, always held the painting in her hand or propped it up to paint so there are frequently fingerprints or smudges and this is the little final picture here. This is a photograph that I had taken when she was charging 50 cents a look. She had increased her price.
Now that’s a kind of biographical sketch. This is a condensed quick version of a book that we’re writing that’s coming out this fall. I need to tell you now the story to introduce the forgery discussion that’s going to take place this morning. In the summer of 2000, we had a man down here from Minooka, Minnesota, suburbs of Minneapolis. His name is Dr. Hugh Shapoista . He had been a very successful text book writer for elementary school kids, spell books, readers, science books and he came to Natchitoches early in the 70’s sometime and was taken to Melrose, met Clementine and became fascinated with Clementine. He acquired a large collection of paintings and was working on a book. He had health issues, problems with his legs, and he became a paraplegic but he had a caregiver. They had a van and they had it handicapped equipped and they drove down from Minnesota. We had lunch at the Brittain’s home, we talked and it was interesting. We have a friend of mine here in town, who had some kids and he thought, well, you know, I’m going to buy some Clementine’s to invest. (?) go to school and I will buy the paintings, when they go to college, I figure they’ll be worth more and I’ll sell them. So he bought some paintings from Robert Lucky here in town, who had been a dealer here, and was moving to New Orleans. My friend said to me,” you know I’ve got one exceptional painting that I’ve never seen before,” and he said you know Hugh might like to buy it. I said I hadn’t seen it so after lunch we load Hugh up in the van and we go to his office, go out in the back and they bring the painting out to the van. It’s a very complicated painting.
Now Clementine painted cotton pickings, pecan pickings and culling the cotton and all these scenes of work at Melrose, wash days. Well this painting had all of them on one board. There was a little cotton picking, a little wash day, a little cotton picking all over. Well, I had never seen that and Hugh looked at it and said, “Gee, this is good but you know, I just bought one like that from Robbie”. Well that should have rung bells but it didn’t too much because over her life, Clementine painted exceptional (?) paintings but she also painted a lot of mundane paintings, (?) themes, wash days, cotton picking but occasionally she would go out and do something totally different that would really awe us. I mean, she was still being creative at her late age. Well, so over the next two years a friend of mine, now deceased, and Anne and I bought seventeen of these paintings from Robbie Lucky. His story to us was there was a lady from England, who had married an American soldier, a civil engineer, came back to New Orleans and while he worked, she made trips to Melrose to visit Clementine and acquired these paintings. She had them stored in a closet and every once in awhile she’d pull one out and sell it. You know, we didn’t know every one that went to Melrose but there was a little clique of folks, we kind of knew names, you always try, when you went to Clementine’s to take her supplies. We have never known her to buy any art boards, or canvas boards or paints or anything. People brought her stuff and we always wrote our name on the back, Tommy, Anne, Bob, whatever. So we would try to get our boards back. We didn’t all the time because she would sell them and that was okay.
Well this person in New Orleans he told, her name was Mrs. Samoridge, and Mrs. Samoridge had these paintings that she had acquired in the 70’s. So they were really good. But after seventeen of these things, it became more and more concerned that everyone of them was really good. In my collection at home I have some fabulous ones but I also have some that are not so fabulous. I mean she could miss, got outside of the lines and stuff, it was kind of messy. Well, we sort of got out of the (?) business and my friend Anne passed away. So I was out of that. However, I was up in Arkansas visiting some friends and my friend up in Arkansas said, “I want to show you a Clementine I bought,” and I said okay. So he brought out a Christmas tree. Now she painted a few Christmas trees. I have a Christmas tree and I’ve maybe seen seven or eight Christmas trees. Well, my friend in Arkansas said, “look at this, it’s really…” and it was a good Christmas tree and he said, “You know what else?” I said what. He said. “I told Robbie that I have three kids, and I’d like to be able someday to leave each kid a Christmas tree painting for the holidays. So Robbie said, “Let me check on it.” In two months there were two more Christmas trees. So I knew then that there was a big problem. Well, but we didn’t know the source of the paintings. That was a problem. It was just coming and we knew people all over the country buying these pictures now from Robbie.
Well, we did a book in 2005 on the African House murals; a beautiful book celebrating the fiftieth anniversary and of course, the book came out in August of 2005, the same month that Katrina hit New Orleans. So that ( ? ) completely crashed any publicity or anything to do with selling the book. Well in 2006, we had a Barnes & Noble book signing in Baton Rouge. We go there; it’s a cast of characters. I’m there, Art Shiver’s there, a prominent art dealer in Baton Rouge, Shelby Gilley shows up. His son is her e today and we are signing books and talking and this kid that went to school here at Northwestern comes up. He’s a lawyer and he says to me, “I just bought my wife a Clementine for a Christmas present and I want to show it to you.” I said fine. He goes out to the car and comes in to Barnes & Noble with the painting. Well he hands it to Shelby Gilley and he looks at it, and Shelby kind of shakes his head. I look at it, and I at first don’t catch it. Shelby looks at me again and I look at it more carefully and I realize it’s one of these; it’s one of these same ones. There’s certain characteristics you can tell. Well that was interesting but my friend, the lawyer, didn’t know. He just bought it from a dealer in Baton Rouge, not from Shelby. We go ahead and leave. We’re kind of really fascinated by this and we eat lunch and head back to Natchitoches from Baton Rouge and over the Atchafalaya Basin, I remember it vividly, the phone rings and it’s Shelby. He says we know whose doing the paintings and I said; who and he said William Toye. We had known in 1974 on April 3rd, on the front page of the Times Picayune in New Orleans there was a photograph with ( ?) NOPD had arrested Mr. Toye and there was a display of fake Clementine’s. Well we didn’t know what happened to Mr. Toye since nobody knew anything about Toye.
A guy in Baton Rouge whose name is Don Fuson runs an art shop, Christmas shop, kind of lots of things in Baton Rouge and does art conservation carpentry work. Well, Mr. Toye had approached him after Katrina and said, “We lost everything in New Orleans except our collection of Clementine paintings and we need to sell some Clementine’s. So Don Fuson had bought a whole bunch of Clementine’s from Mr. Toye. Don Fuson, that afternoon, he brought them over to Shelby’s shop and Shelby said these are fake. So Don goes to Mr. Toye’s house and walks in and I’m not going to spoil the story. I’m going to let (?) Deaton tell the story in a few minutes about what happened when Don Fuson went to the house but let’s just say it involves lots of cats and (?).
The problem and this is where it really gets really interesting, I hope, for the audience, we tried from then on, Don Fuson, myself, Shelby Gilley, the lawyer in Baton Rouge, and there was another couple of people, a couple of lawyers involved, we couldn’t find anybody interested in taking the case. True story. The FBI in Lafayette, Louisiana was approached by an attorney. The FBI in Baton Rouge was approached. I drove to Baton Rouge and went to a meeting with the three assistant attorneys general of the State of Louisiana. They met with the district attorney. They met with the sheriff. They met with the US attorney in Baton Rouge. Everyone agreed this is really terrible but nobody did anything about it. Now this was going on for nearly a year. It was white collar crime you know, whatever, nobody did a thing about it. Finally the group contracted with, consulted with the US attorney in Shreveport and there are two heroes in this story. One of them is Alex (?) who is the first assistant US attorney in Shreveport and the other hero in this story is our next speaker, Special Agent FBI Randolph Deaton IV, Randy Deaton.
Tom Whitehead, a retired professor from Northwestern State University, knew the artist and became her unofficial biographer. He co-authored Clementine Hunter: The African House Murals in 2005, and Clementine Hunter: Cane River Artist to be published by the LSU Press in the fall of 2012.