Spot the difference: Tony Tetro is challenging people to pick the genuine Warhol.
Reformed American art forger Tony Tetro is causing a commotion in a country already stirred by a scandalous art fraud.
Brazenly, but by invitation, Tetro has painted, sketched and signed nine replica Andy Warhol pieces to hang alongside one that is authentic in a boutique Melbourne hotel group.
In South Yarra at The Olsen, one of the three hotels of the Art Series Hotel Group to hang his fake Warhols, Tetro recently revealed details of his former life as a fraudulent painter.
He mimicked the mark of Salvador Dali, Marc Chagall and other past masters of the canvas to such perfection that he said his own oils, watercolours and drawings now hang in galleries and museums around the world.
An Art Series group competition, where guests guess “Which Warhol” is real, has brought it the result New York artist Warhol famously claimed about the fickle nature of publicity in 1968: “In the future everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.”
But by encouraging Tetro’s Warhol forgeries, the marketing stunt has stirred the art community, with the international website ArtInfo stating the New York-based Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts “is appalled to learn that a hotel would think it wise to commission forgeries in an attempt to market its services”.
Art Series Hotel Group chief executive Will Deague defended the Which Warhol competition and said a forum of Australia’s art elite, run to coincide with the competition launch, discussed why art forgery “is a serious issue facing the international art industry”.
“In running Which Warhol, we’re looking to profile this serious issue and stimulate discussion and debate around the production of replica art,” Deague said.
Hundreds of Tetro works were sold by unscrupulous US art dealers from 1972 to 1989 before his furtive late-night activity was discovered and he was jailed for art forgery, Tetro told the forum.
Asked whether such works might be hanging on Australian walls, he was coy. “A few could be,” he said with a shrug.
A legal team that included O.J. Simpson lawyer Robert Shapiro successfully fought for Tetro’s freedom, and he was released from jail in 1994 with all charges expunged.
But the legal fight left him bankrupt and bereft of the luxury cars and plush home of his former extravagant lifestyle.
In the past decade Tetro, 61, the son of a New York house painter, has returned to painting. He is legally making reproductions of famous works for his clients, “and I have more work than I can handle”.
He signs his name on the back of each canvas, as ruled by the Los Angeles County Superior Court.
Deague told the forum gathered at his hotel that Tetro, “the world’s greatest living art forger”, was commissioned to copy Warhol’s pop art, including his 1960s Campbell’s Soup Cans series.
Hotel guests are invited to guess which of the 10 works hanging behind the reception desk is real. The winner scores the $20,000 true Warhol when the competition closes in August.
“It is a marketing campaign, but also an educational experience for all our guests about fake artwork,” Deague told the forum.
“I was absolutely shocked when I was told that 15 to 20 per cent of artwork sold is a fake.”
Heading the forum was Metro Modern Art Gallery director Alex McCulloch, who said there has been a scandal in the Australian art world in recent months following the sale of an alleged fake Brett Whiteley painting.
“I … got up at the crack of noon.”
McCulloch’s Armadale gallery represents contemporary Australian artists. He said art fraud causes buyers to lose faith in auction houses, and the ripple effect goes right back to the artists and their families.
“There has been quite a lot of dialogue about how to stop it,” he said. “Something needs to happen in the art world and it needs to be spoken about.”
Joining McCulloch on the forum panel was art authentication expert, curator and gallery owner John Buckley, who discovered he had a shared interest in a book that Tetro said was the inspiration to set him on a path to art world infamy 40 years ago.
That book, Fake!, by American investigative reporter Clifford Irving, delved into the life of Hungarian art forger Elmyr de Hory.
“I read Fake! in 1971,” Tetro said. “I was broke, I was married and I said, ‘I can do this’. That was 1972 when I started … and I was arrested in 1989. But I am no longer a convicted art forger, I was expunged by a judge.”
To copy the classics, Tetro said he read books, visited museums – including the Chagall Museum in France – and developed his own technique for ageing his work; genuine “craquelar” in the surface of an oil painting is a 50-year process.
“I have had no formal art training. In Italy in 1978 I was taught to do flesh tones by an old man – that was the only training I had.”
Finding a market for his copies was easy in Los Angeles in the affluent ’80s, Tetro said, and he was cruising the city in a Lamborghini.
“At that time everyone in LA tried to outdo each other. Everyone thought I was a drug dealer. I couldn’t tell them what I really did. I painted late at night and early in the morning and got up at the crack of noon.”
Tetro said he was 22 when he first approached galleries in LA with fake paintings by famous artists and told them his grandfather had given them to him and he wanted to sell them.
“Then the art dealers commissioned me to do the work. It was like going to work, a job. I didn’t think it was right or wrong. Now, looking back, I am looking through different eyes.”