"And they said there's a market for excellent copies. So I started doing them and, in fact, developed a printing method that is unique, and I did colored lithographs, Chagall, Dali, Miro. . . . "
But with lithographs sprouting like museum posters, what is the profit in reproducing the readily available?
There exist, explains Tetro, only 200 authentic lithographs of Norman Rockwell's painting, "Doctor and Doll":
"They're all gone (sold) and they're over $18,000 if you want one. But every doctor in the world wants one for his office . . . and I sold mine for $500."
The history and economics of Tetro's career, however, are of little concern to investigator Helton. His interest is on the legal definitions of forgery, and evidence that Tetro marketed his work knowing they would be sold as originals.
"I think we have a real solid case," Helton says.
It was Helton who led the 16-person raid that filled one van and loaded a stake-bed truck with the lithographs and paintings seized at Tetro's home. Although several dozen copies of oils, lithos and gouaches by Dali and Picasso also were seized, they do not figure in the charges.
Helton says art forgers generate "large dollar amounts, a lot of victims" and roam relatively unthreatened in a market policed by "only three people I know in law enforcement with the expertise to work these cases."
Other investigators say developments in photomechanical printing, an explosive demand for lithographs and an affluent generation of dabblers more interested in quick profit than authentic art, have added to the ripeness of the market.
In recent months:
* Manhattan Beach art broker Frank de Marigny, 38, pleaded no contest and was sentenced to 30 months in prison on multiple counts of grand theft and art forgery. De Marigny tried to sell a fake Renoir to an undercover police officer and wanted $3.2 million for it.
* Federal authorities reported that between 1980 and 1987, more than $1 billion worth of fake Dalis alone have been found in galleries from Newport Beach to New York.
* Pierre Marcand, a Beverly Hills art dealer, has been named a defendant in a civil suit filed by the Federal Trade Commission. It alleges Marcand produced and sold at least 22,000 fake prints.
* In March, 1989, Mark Henry Sawicki, former owner of a Sherman Oaks gallery, was charged with 10 counts of art forgery and grand theft.
And there was born a perfect witness, a capstone of the district attorney's case against Tetro.
Because after his arrest, Sawicki copped a plea. In exchange for three years probation, 1,000 hours of community service and $78,000 in restitution, the dealer agreed to deliver Tetro as the man who painted the art he had sold.
Sawicki set up a meeting at Tetro's condominium. They discussed mutual friends, monies owed and artworks to be created--while Sawicki was wearing a concealed tape recorder.
The audiotape and Sawicki's testimony were bombshells at Tetro's preliminary hearing in Los Angeles Municipal Court.
On the tape, Tetro is heard to say he "did a Chagall" and that other paintings were "in the works." In testimony, Sawicki said he saw Tetro practicing artists' signatures on note pads and scratch paper and "on the backs of damaged artwork."
The case against Tetro continues to build--brutally.
Dealer Sawicki has told authorities that between 1984 and 1989, he did from $75,000 to $100,000 in business with Tetro--and sold hundreds of works attributed to Miro, Dali and Yamagata.
In an interview, Helton said he located examples of that work at the Carol Lawrence Galleries in Beverly Hills and as far afield as Studio 47 in New York and a gallery in Japan.
Los Angeles Police Detective Bill Martin, an art fraud expert, says Tetro is "a major player."
Yet, even if guilty and convicted as charged, eight years is the maximum jail sentence for the charges Tetro faces.
And within a justice system that rarely deals in maximums, Tetro is unlikely to serve a full sentence.
"But it's not a laughing matter," said Tetro's prosecutor, deputy district attorney Reva Goetz. "He has taken the work of these artists and made the market unreliable, and thrown into question, for most people, the viability of the entire graphics market."
Artist Yamagata says that although Tetro's copies, in general, are "not bad," he wishes Tetro had painted in his own style:
"I just don't know why he doesn't establish his own way. I feel sorry for him because he took the easy way, he didn't go his own way. Having talent to paint in general is one thing. But artists must also have a passion for creation before a painting exists.
"I paint a very tranquil image. It represents my feelings, my senses, my memories and you just can't copy those. Not being able to copy my passion and energies means people (buyers) can't find it in his copies."
Barry Levine, president of Martin Lawrence Galleries and one of Yamagata's publishers, says he presumes forgeries have affected sales of his client's watercolors. But he knows of no way to measure financial loss.