The theme of the three talks in the PSG morning session on Thursday revolved around the need for a comparative approach to the examination of works of art. Joseph Barabe’s talk perhaps best exemplifies the benefits of examining a group of works by a single artist comparatively, an approach he used to ultimately disprove the authenticity of five paintings by the African American folk artist Clementine Hunter. This talk was quite exciting as it executed technical art history as forensic science resulting in the prosecution of William Toye (the forger), his wife Beryl Toye, and dealer Robert E. Lucky for mail fraud and conspiracy to commit mail fraud (a.k.a. forging and knowingly selling forged works of art).
The FBI Art Crime Team contacted McCrone Associates Inc. seeking authentication of five questionable paintings confiscated from the Toyes’ home. Barabe approached the task methodically, comparing the five paintings in question to five authentic works purchased directly from the artist, all from around the same time period. He also had one of Clementine Hunter’s palettes at his disposal, as well as paints confiscated from the Toyes’ studio.
Using a variety of examination and analytical techniques including visual examination with magnification, examination of cross sections, and analysis of samples using polarized light microscopy and infrared techniques including FTIR and Raman, Barabe was able to document very specific differences between the two groups of paintings. His visual examinations focused on the artist’s handling of her figures’ eyes and on her signature, revealing fundamental differences in approach between the group of authentic paintings and the group in question, as well as a marked difference in paint texture and opacity. He also found consistent underdrawing in the five originals, but not in the Toyes’ paintings.
Perhaps the most interesting discovery was the disparity in paint quality between the authentic Clementine Hunter paintings and the five in question. Clementine Hunter was the granddaughter of a slave and spent the majority of her life picking cotton at Melrose Plantation in Louisiana. She remained illiterate and was a self-taught painter, selling her paintings for as little as $0.25 in the beginning and frequently trading paintings for art supplies. Despite these obvious set backs, the paints analyzed on the authentic paintings proved to be of quite good quality. The paints found on Toyes’ paintings, however, were of significantly lesser quality, consisting of mostly student grade paints containing titanated lithopone and other fillers.
The inconsistencies in the materials and artist’s technique of the five paintings in question was enough to convince Barabe, and the FBI, that they were indeed fraudulent, and now the elderly (and quite eccentric) couple are paying the price.