Claremont Man Charged With Forging Artwork

Times Staff Writer

A Claremont man described as "one of the largest art forgers on the West Coast" has been charged on 45 felony counts for allegedly fabricating and distributing watercolors and lithographs purported to be the work of Japanese artist Hiro Yamagata and other well-known painters, it was learned Friday.

Anthony Gene Tetro, 39, is accused of conspiring with art dealer Mark Henry Sawicki to defraud four gallery owners in Los Angeles, New York and Illinois by selling them phony work attributed to Yamagata, a popular artist whose original paintings done in primitive style sell for as much as $250,000, according to his distributor.

"It is believed that Mr. Tetro is one of the largest art forgers on the West Coast, if not the United States," said Sandi Gibbons, spokeswoman for the Los Angeles County district attorney's office.

'Practice Signatures'

Gibbons said 250 pieces of forged art attributed to Salvador Dali, Pablo Picasso and other artists were seized during a search of Tetro's home last April. Also found was an appointment book "containing practice signatures of various famous artists," she added.

Tetro's attorney, George Porter, said he had not seen the complaint against his client and was unable to comment. Sawicki's lawyer, Robert Rocky Star, also declined to discuss the charges.

Last March, the district attorney's office filed 10 forgery and grand theft counts against Sawicki, 32, of Agoura, the former owner of Visual Environment, a defunct art gallery in Sherman Oaks.

Sawicki, who is free on bail, then cooperated with authorities. He arranged to buy from Tetro four allegedly forged artworks attributed to Joan Miro, paying him $8,000, Gibbons said. "He (Tetro) provided three paintings and promised the fourth in a few days."

Gibbons said the search warrant was executed "as soon as the transaction was completed."

In a complaint filed last Monday, Tetro is accused of forging 29 Yamagata watercolors, 10 watercolors by Marc Chagall, one watercolor by Norman Rockwell and four Miro lithographs. Tetro is also free on bail and is scheduled to be arraigned Friday in Los Angeles Municipal Court.

'A Good Buy'

One of the victims named in the complaint, Barry Johnson, an art dealer in Buffalo, N.Y., said in a telephone interview that he agreed to buy five Yamagata watercolors from Sawicki in July, 1988, because "it seemed like a good buy." The artist's distributor, Martin Lawrence Galleries, a chain of shopping mall shops, "was asking a minimum of $5,000 each for paintings similar to what was offered to me for $3,000 (each)," Johnson said.

Johnson said he was concerned enough about the possibility of forgery to alert Martin Lawrence Galleries, which in turn contacted law enforcement authorities. Martin Lawrence executives were not available Friday.

Meanwhile, Johnson said, he was able to stop payment on his check.

Another victim named in the complaint, Mitchell Beja, a Brooklyn art dealer, was apparently not as fortunate. Beja said he met Sawicki at a trade show in Chicago and bought seven small watercolors from him for between $5,000 and $6,000 each.

"He seemed like a decent guy so I bought them," said Beja, who did not learn that the works were alleged to be forgeries until they were seized by investigators.

Dealer, Gallery Named

The complaint also alleges that Tetro and Sawicki conspired to defraud Carol Lawrence Galleries in Beverly Hills and Michael Zabrin, an art dealer in Rockford, Ill.

Lawrence Steinman, owner of the Beverly Hills gallery, bought 10 phony Yamagata watercolors from Sawicki, according to the complaint. "We framed them up, put them on the wall, offered them for sale, and the Police Department came in and bought them," Steinman said.

Steinman's gallery was searched last summer after Beverly Hills police received a tip that he might be selling fake art, but no charges were filed against him. Denying wrongdoing, the gallery owner said the search was prompted by business competitors trying to stop him from underselling them.

Yamagata, who has been living in Los Angeles since 1978, is expected to testify against Tetro, according to court documents.

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