The Talented Mr. Toye

Erika Larsen
by John Ed Bradley - Louisiana - April/May 2010

The strange story of how William Toye might have forged hundreds of paintings, deceived prominent art collectors, and created a scandal around one of Louisiana's greatest folk artists

William and Beryl Toye have sixty cats buried in the backyard of their Baton Rouge home, each in its own coffin. William, seventy-eight, builds the coffins out of redwood. Beryl, ten years younger than her husband, digs the holes.

The Toyes are opera aficionados, and for years they named their pets after characters in the musicals of Gilbert and Sullivan, until they finally ran out of names.

“Do you know we’ve had a hundred and six cats since 1977?” William says with no small measure of pride. “Ko-Ko was the first, Yum-Yum was second. If you have all day, I can tell you about every one of them.”

The Toyes never wanted children. “We didn’t want all the yelling and screaming,” William says, “so we adopted cats instead.”

They live in a quiet neighborhood populated with ranch homes built in the 1960s and ’70s. Theirs is the only two-story house on the street, and it’s the only one with knee-high grass and the shorn trunk of a dead tree in front. Beryl Toye grew up in England, and one might call her yard an English garden if it weren’t a fact that she hasn’t tended to it in years. Beryl suffers from agoraphobia, an anxiety disorder that incites feelings of panic if she has to leave the house, and as a result she often goes as long as a month without venturing outside.

Visitors to Keaty Drive say the house looks haunted. The gutters have fallen down, and the fascia board is rotten and black with mold. Junk crowds the front porch: a discarded air-conditioning unit, rolls of stained carpet, a mail carton left to rot in the weather. Inside, there is a large hole in the ceiling of what was once the formal living room. The Toyes made the hole one night at 3:00 a.m. to free their Maine coon, Puggy Wuggy, when the cat got stuck between the joists. During the same crisis, they also carved out the ceiling of the downstairs powder room.

“I contacted a funeral home about where to get gravestones for the cats,” William says. “So I’m going to have a load of gravestones delivered, and we’re going to put one at the head of each grave.”

“We know where they all are,” says Beryl, who is making a rare outdoor appearance this day. “Taddy is here, Janey here.” She stops, brings her hands up to her face, and begins to cry.

“Hebe,” William calls out, pronouncing the name Hee-bee. “I think I saw Hebe Jeebe under the storage building, B.” He looks at his wife and points again. “Hebe,” he says. “Come along now, Hebe.”

“But you told me she was killed in the raid,” I whisper to William, out of Beryl’s earshot. “She was,” William replies. He begins to cry now, too.

It happend on the morning of September 30. Brandishing a search warrant, federal agents descended on the Toyes’ home and spent nearly five hours looking for evidence that the reclusive old couple were more than eccentric cat hoarders. The FBI was investigating claims that the Toyes were also art forgers who had scammed dealers and collectors out of hundreds of thousands of dollars by selling them fake paintings by Louisiana folk artist Clementine Hunter. According to the Toyes, the agents ransacked their home and outbuildings and found only four small Hunters, leftovers from a four-hundred-piece collection that Beryl had amassed decades earlier when she and the artist were friends.

Five months after the raid, the Toyes and an art dealer who sold hundreds of their paintings were finally indicted and charged with three counts each of mail fraud and one count of conspiracy to commit mail fraud. The Toyes remained defiant, and the threat of a federal trial and prison time hardly fazed them. “The FBI just wants us out of the house so they can come back and steal the Degas we have stored in the closet,” Beryl says. “But I have a message for them: We’re not leaving. Let them come get us.”
As many as forty people had participated in the raid, including agents with Animal Control who left with several cats in portable kennels. “It was like a Ku Klux Klan, homosexual, Nazi Germany convention,” Beryl says.

Neighbors congregated across the street at James Breedlove’s house. “I had so many people come over, I could’ve sold tickets,” Breedlove says. “The agents had a card table set up in the front yard, and they were bringing out paintings. They would wrap the paintings in brown paper and log them onto a yellow pad on a clipboard. Finally a fire truck and an EMS vehicle showed up. I learned later that Beryl went bonkers. They took her to the psych ward of a local hospital for three days, but we didn’t understand all this at the time. All we saw was Beryl coming out on a stretcher. It was quite a show, I’m telling you.”

The raid unhinged Beryl, she admits, and she swallowed Valium tablets after telling agents she was going to kill herself. She also cursed and took a swing at one of the investigators. “They were pointing fingers at me, and I can’t paint,” says Beryl. “And then they thought they could trick me. They said, ‘Well, your husband’s confessed to it and we’re going to take him down to Central Lockup.’ And I said, ‘But he couldn’t have painted them either because I bought them from Clementine.’”

William surely has the talent to copy Hunter. While most of the paintings hanging on the walls of the Toyes’ home depict now-deceased pet cats, there are highly competent copies in the mix of great paintings by artists such as Paul Gauguin, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, and Alfred Sisley, and all came from William’s hand. William once said he might’ve had an important career as an artist had he been able to function better in the world. Like Beryl, he battled agoraphobia, which for a time left him paralyzed with fear if he had to do so much as get in his car and drive across town. William is particularly adept at replicating Claude Monet, the French Impressionist whose canvases sell for millions. “Nobody does Monet better than me,” William likes to boast. “If he were still alive and we both did a water lily painting, tell me the difference.”

Beryl says she finally buckled under the agents’ pressure and took responsibility for producing the fake Hunters. “I said, ‘Okay, I painted them,’” she says. “‘I painted them right after I finished helping Michelangelo paint the Sistine Chapel and Chagall paint the lobby of the Met.’ This of course went above their heads.”

In the commotion the Toyes’ favorite cat jumped the fence into a neighbor’s yard. Twelve-year-old Hebe had cataracts and couldn’t see well. William later found her dead in the street. “Her unseeing eyes were gazing out at me,” he says. “What is the FBI going to say when we share this story with the sixty million cat lovers in the U.S.?”

William says he confronted an agent after he discovered Hebe. “I told him, ‘You want a fight? Go ahead.’ But he just walked away. And so I yelled at him, ‘The nation of cat lovers will know about this. You murdered Hebe.’”

In the backyard now, Beryl has stopped crying. She looks out over the privacy fence that separates their property from a self-storage facility on the adjacent lot. “They’re watching us from the top of that building as we speak,” she says. “The FBI has us under twenty-four-hour surveillance. They see everything we do.”

“Hebe Jeebe,” William calls out.

“They sprayed a special powder on our car,” Beryl says. “Whenever William goes anywhere, like to the market, they can track him from a satellite.”

“When they were clearing out the land behind us to build that building,” William says, indicating the self-storage facility, “they took out a forest. The guy operating the CAT tractor found a human skeleton holding a high-powered rifle. The skeleton didn’t have identification, but we’re certain he was an assassin hired to kill us. He died back there somehow. It never made the papers, of course.”

Born in either 1886 or 1887, Clementine Hunter spent most of her life at Melrose Plantation, some fifteen miles southeast of Natchitoches, Louisiana, a picturesque town of about eighteen thousand on the banks of the Cane River. Hunter, granddaughter of a slave, picked cotton and pecans until the jobs exacted such a physical toll that she moved into the big house and worked as a maid and a cook. In the early part of the twentieth century, Melrose served as a retreat for writers, artists, and other members of the South’s intelligentsia, many of them residents of New Orleans’ French Quarter who found a patron and friend in Cammie Henry, the plantation’s owner. According to legend, artist Alberta Kinsey left behind some painting supplies after a visit in 1939, and Hunter used them to make her first picture on a window shade.

Hunter produced between four thousand and five thousand paintings before her death on New Year’s Day, 1988, at age 101. Her colorful, simply rendered scenes of agrarian life hang today in museums and appear in major exhibitions dedicated to American folk art, and collectors of Southern art covet her work, routinely paying $12,000 for a superior example. Her paintings are often compared to those of Grandma Moses, but the differences between the two are profound. Moses painted quaint scenes of rural New York, most of them winter landscapes, while Hunter showed the daily activities of an average country black person in the segregated South.

William Toye has never understood the appeal of Hunter’s paintings. “They’re junk,” he says, “and really only good as dartboards.”

The Toyes moved to Baton Rouge from New Orleans in 1994, and in both locations William refused to let Beryl display her Hunters at home. He hates the paintings so much, he says, that he destroyed dozens of them by breaking them over his knee. He put others out for trash pickup, but not without first punching holes in them with the pointed end of a bricklayer’s hammer. Almost as bad, he kept her collection in a garage with a pet door that let cats come in from the cold. “I let them scratch and piss on the pictures,” William says. “And I was happy when they did. I think it improved them a lot.”

He says he has no regrets about how he treated the Hunters even after he learned how much they’d increased in value. Beryl, who says she started buying from the artist in 1969, usually paid between $35 and $50 for a painting. She once sold a group of six through a New Orleans auction house, she says, and earned “top price.” In the early 2000s, that amounted to about $3,500 a painting. “Whenever we sold some, the money went to the cats,” William says. “We go through about five tons of cat litter a year. Can you imagine what that costs?”

Tom Whitehead knows the Toyes made a bundle selling art, but he doesn’t believe their story about Beryl’s Clementine Hunter collection.

Whitehead, a retired associate professor of journalism at Northwestern State in Natchitoches, was so close to the artist that she called him her “white son.” Beginning in 1969, he visited her at least once a week but never ran into Beryl Toye. He doesn’t recall Hunter ever mentioning her name, either.
In 2005, Whitehead partnered with Art Shiver and edited a book about the murals Hunter painted in Melrose’s African House, an old structure that stands on the plantation grounds. Whitehead was autographing copies one day at a Baton Rouge bookstore when a friend approached him holding a Hunter painting. As it happened, another Hunter expert, Shelby Gilley, who wrote his own book about the artist, had come to the store to see Whitehead. The two men examined the painting, and Gilley, a Baton Rouge gallery owner who died of pancreatic cancer in January, expressed doubts about its authenticity.

Hunter fakes had been circulating since the early 1970s, but those counterfeits were easy to identify. One of her relatives had forged paintings, as had a relative of Cammie Henry’s. Because Hunter painted in a primitive style, she became a mark for yet more artists who found her easy to imitate. What made the painting in the bookstore different was its quality. The forger was clever and highly skilled. He’d painted the scene on vintage board, and his brushstrokes and monogram were convincing representations of the artist’s. But something about the painting wasn’t right. For starters, it was too clean to have originated with Hunter, who typically left smudges on the backs of her paintings and mussed the edges from handling.