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Forging Ahead : Art: Anthony Gene Tetro has made a name for himself by copying the works of others. Now he's busy on public safety projects as restitution--a novel if not original use of his talents. : Region

August 12, 1993|PHILIP P. PAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Inside a dimly lit supply shed at the rear of the San Dimas sheriff's substation, an artist of talent and perhaps criminal genius is painting the Mona Lisa. Or an impressive copy of it, at least.

The painter is Anthony Gene Tetro, 43, described as the nation's most prolific art forger when he pleaded no contest in February to forging works by the likes of Marc Chagall, Joan Miro, Norman Rockwell and Salvador Dali.

Superior Court Judge Michael Tynan in April ordered Tetro to produce art--original art--for the public. Tetro is in a six-month work-release program at the San Dimas station in which he paints prototypes for traffic safety murals.

But even as he serves a sentence designed to punish a multimillion-dollar forger, Tetro clings to what he calls his true calling:

"I'm a copyist. I always have been and I always will be. I never had a style of my own. I never wanted to be a famous artist. I just like to paint," Tetro said.

Take the Mona Lisa portrait on the easel in his makeshift studio, for example. In his version of the Da Vinci painting, the ubiquitous lady sits behind the wheel of a red Ferrari, with a seat belt strapped across her. In the passenger seat, a smaller Mona Lisa is tucked in a child-safety seat.

It is a whimsical approach to promoting seat belts and safety seats, perhaps, but it was not Tetro's idea. The credit goes to Jan Nichols, the director of the sheriff's traffic safety project who oversees Tetro.

Other murals in the works, including one of a Statue of Liberty holding a "slow" sign, were also conceived by others and then painted by Tetro.

"If you give him ideas and tell him exactly what you want, then he can come up with good stuff," Nichols said.

Tetro, a former furniture salesman and the son of a New York house painter, said he has never painted truly original work, and he doesn't intend to begin now.

"I paint what I'm asked to paint. I don't see why that should change now," he said. "To me it was a job. It's what I do, and I wasn't moved by it."

But as art gained new popularity in the '80s, it was a job that made Tetro an increasingly wealthy man.

He combined his ability to copy anything, including an artist's signature, with his own special printing method for reproducing lithographs, and soon his imitations were in high demand by individual buyers and art dealers alike.

"If he's not the best, I have no idea who'd be better," said Jim Shopneck, who manages a store in Upland that sells Tetro's lithographs. He has a natural ability to re-create anything he sees. He doesn't do any work of his own. It's all copies. He likes that. It's kind of a challenge for him."

*

Tetro, who had no professional art training, soon earned a reputation as a high-profile player in the art world. He lived lavishly in a trilevel condominium in Claremont, made regular journeys to Paris and Rome, cruised around town in his Rolls-Royce or Lamborghini Countach. Or one of his three Ferraris.

One of those was an exact replica of a 1958 Ferrari Testarossa race car, a model that no longer exists. Tetro invested six years and several hundred thousand dollars to build the car with every detail, inside and out, copied perfectly.

"He had a passion and talent for copying, for trying to re-create what had been done ages ago, and do it absolutely perfectly," said Dennis Smith, who is producing a movie based on Tetro's life. "Obviously there are other forgers in the world, but this guy was the best."

He's a very smooth and casual guy, but very detailed and very polished," said Smith. "He reminded me of James Bond. I knew when I met him that he would go way, way up or he would get caught and crash."

*

In fact, Tetro's life in the fast lane crashed on April 18, 1989, the day that police raided his home, seized more than 100 paintings and lithographs, and charged him with 67 felony counts of forgery.

He was forced to sell almost everything he owned to pay legal fees. He moved out of the condo, and now lives in a hotel in Claremont. The Rolls, the Lamborghini, the Ferraris are all gone, replaced by a Honda Civic. "It was tense. I had the whole state of California trying to put my ass in jail, and it was me against them," he said. "It was an ordeal."

During those years, Tetro was so distraught that he stopped painting almost entirely, and considered retiring his brushes for good.

Tetro admitted copying the works and signatures of famous artists, but he testified that he did not know that dealers were selling his reproductions as originals. His case went to trial in June, 1991, but a mistrial was declared after the jury failed to reach a verdict.

Instead of going through a second trial, Tetro decided to accept a plea bargain with no prison time. He took six months in a work-release program, 200 hours of community service and five years on probation. He is also required to paint a mural on a public building or wall.

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