Fulton, the small town where I grew up, billed itself as “The City with a Future.” My father called it the asshole of New York. Today it’s just another Rust Belt casualty, but then, it was a thriving all-American town populated by Italian and Irish immigrants who pledged allegiance, went to church, and worked hard at one of the factories—Sealrite, Armstrong Cork, Miller Brewing, or Nestlé, making chocolate, which you could smell from across the river when it was about to rain.

We all dropped our native languages, accents, and foreign names and got on with the business of making it in America. We played baseball, rode our bikes, and swam at Fair Haven Beach on Lake Ontario, where I would spend all day building and decorating elaborate sandcastles. We attended Rotary Club and had charity carnivals for the volunteer fire department. And though we traded insults—us calling the Irish kids “micks,” and them calling us “guineas,” “goombahs,” and “greasers”—it never led to any real animosity. Every Italian guy ended up marrying an Irish girl and every Italian girl married an Irish guy. Even one of my own best friends, Gary Battles, married Rosalie Arcigliano.

My father, James, who everybody called The Gump because of his resemblance to Andy Gump, the 1930s cartoon character, had come over from Bari, Italy, as a child, living first in the Bronx, where he carried ice blocks up the tenement stairs of Arthur Avenue, before moving to central New York. My mother, who had entered Ellis Island from Sicily as Beatrice Di Stefano, came out as Bee De Stevens and married my father at the age of eighteen. They bought a house, had four kids, and got on with getting ahead.

The curve of First Street where we lived was called Spaghetti Bend. It was the center of what had been the Italian part of Fulton for decades. In the thirties people called Fulton “Little Chicago” because of its reputation for Al Capone–style killings and the fact that it was the mob’s stronghold in central New York. When I was growing up, the mob was everywhere, but it was low-key and unremarkable—just part of the atmosphere that you breathed. At the Italian American Club on Broadway, you could see the bosses, Anthony Di Stefano (no relation to my mother) and Bobo Ranieri, playing cards while their entourages hung around, waiting. As far as I knew, they controlled jukeboxes, pinball machines, and the clipboards in every diner and café where you could bet on sports or play the numbers. If you were in trouble, you could borrow money—which everybody told you, “You better pay it back”—but there was no drugs or prostitution or anything seedy that I could see anywhere.

Of course, Fulton did seem to have a lot of failing businesses with paid-up insurance policies and faulty, fire-prone wiring. The Derby Lanes bowling alley, Gayle’s Bar and Grill, the car dealer- ship, the furniture store—all of them went up in flames. One of my brother’s friends, Lefty Levy, told my brother about torching a few places and even his own car. Lefty had called it “Jewish Lightning.” When Bobo Ranieri died, Fulton had a funeral that was talked about for decades, a procession of a hundred black Caddies, as far as the eye could see, coming to pay their respects.

It was impressive, but it didn’t do much for me. My heroes weren’t mobsters, they were Enzo Ferrari and Leonardo da Vinci— geniuses I could be proud of and aspire to. When I was young, Enzo Ferrari was still in his prime and his cars were absolutely dominant on the racing circuit. They were marvels of engineering, winning every race and overshadowing all the other manufacturers in the world. At the 24 Hours of Le Mans, while other cars flamed out or seized up, the Ferrari cars were so well engineered that they almost never broke down. They became the ambassadors for Italian artistry, breathtaking style, and design excellence, far superior to the bland and simple muscle cars Americans produced. As a child, it made me proud to think of a string of culture from ancient Rome to the Renaissance all the way through to these cars, and that I was in some small way connected to that. Every child constructs a story about where they come from and where they fit in, and I liked this one.

At school, I learned about ancient Rome, and at the time, Hollywood was full of epic films about the majesty and glory of the Eternal City. Ben-Hur had won eleven Academy Awards and filled my mind with panoramic, Technicolor images of opulence and civilization. To think that my ancestors constructed hundred- mile-long aqueducts and that Roman homes had both hot and cold running water when other people lived unwashed in thatched huts impressed me.

I wasn’t much of a student, slouching my way to solid Cs because I wasn’t interested in most subjects. I was, however, always good at and interested in art. Even at just nine or ten years old I was copying photographs from books or magazines that my mother, an avid reader, would leave lying around the house. I remember once I copied, freehand, a photograph of Steve Reeves, the body- builder and actor from the movie Hercules. He was wearing his half toga, holding chains, and pulling down two columns—the pillars of mythical fame. When I finished my drawing, I proudly showed my mother, who praised me, but my oldest brother, Jim, belittled me, accusing me of tracing from the photo. “No! That’s not true,” I shouted, and then I showed him that my drawing was actually much larger than the photograph. I was deeply offended because I was very proud of my work.

Our town had a beautiful Carnegie library and it was there that the Mickey Mouse Club held its meetings. Every Tuesday night after dinner, we’d troop downstairs with our ears on to sing songs and learn about the practice of good citizenship according to the gospel of Walt Disney. After our meeting, I’d wander over to the art section and leaf through Abrams art books, looking at the pictures.

My father, who thought I might be musical, bought me a guitar and arranged for me to have lessons. It was a futile waste of my time and his money. But my mother, who noticed that I had a talent for art, bought me a beginner’s set of oil paints. It had little tubes of color and four or five brushes, some thinner, and a small stack of eight-by-ten canvas boards. I’d practice at the kitchen table while my mother cooked dinner nearby. When I’d get started, I’d be engrossed in what I was doing, but being only a child, my attention would start to wane after a while. Still, I was ambitious with what I painted. I tried a portrait of my dog, Duke, but I didn’t yet know how to capture the way light hit the dog’s hairs. My mother’s friend, Mrs. Pommeroy, once complimented me, saying she thought my painting was wonderful. Instead of being proud, I said I wasn’t happy at all and that I had done much better on other occasions. Even then, I was demanding of my efforts.

At Holy Family Catholic School, where I attended junior high, we were under the strict rule of grim nuns who wore full penguin habits and handed out education and their own shriveled sense of discipline—also known as corporal punishment—in equal measure. I used to draw my teacher, an old nun, as a Vargas pinup girl—long luscious legs, curvy hips, plump breasts, and a sour, wrinkled Sister Antoninus face. When she finally caught me, she smacked me hard across the knuckles with her pointer and dragged me down the hall by the ear to the principal, Father Hearn, who struggled to suppress his chuckles and made me promise to knock it off.

High school was the first time I had any real instruction in art. My teacher was a college graduate in art history who encouraged us and introduced us to the great painters and to concepts like perspective, color theory, and technique. For a lesson on abstract art, I remember I did a clumsy painting of a female nude. I got a failing grade, but nobody pulled me out of class by the ear for it. For a class on perspective, I drew a detailed view of the room, showing everything I saw in front of me. I received an A+ and was very proud. This time, I felt like I deserved it.

At night, I’d go to the public library and head downstairs past the newest class of Mouseketeers to spend hours looking at artists I had only barely heard of. I didn’t understand Picasso, and Mondrian did nothing for me. I didn’t get the point of mastering all that technique just to make geometric shapes with primary colors.

My teacher showed us Chagall, calling his work “visual poetry,” and it was true, I could see the poetic movement of color. We were introduced to Dalí, the whole class being asked to repeat after the teacher: “Sur. Realism.” Dalí was weird, but I was impressed by his imagination and thought I couldn’t have come up with that kind of unusual imagery. Pointillism, to me, seemed too laborious; carefully filling in dots of color on a big canvas seemed like a waste of time. I liked the Impressionists. Their paintings were pretty and I could recognize talent in them. But to me, all of this modern art lacked soul.

What really struck a chord were the old masters and Renaissance painters. Now, my mind is trained, but then, I used to think, “How could they think up all these things—the sky, the angels, the crucifixion, the people and their expressions, the clouds, the light?” I thought it was magical that they could do that. I didn’t feel that kind of awe about modern painters.

I started to learn about artists like Perugino, Verrocchio, Michelangelo, Raphael, and Botticelli, but Leonardo was the greatest hero of them all, although when I was young, I was more fascinated by Leonardo the engineer and scientist than Leonardo the artist. I was drawn to his notebooks, with their ingenious feats of engineering: his aqualung, his flying machine and parachute, the war machines, his intricate studies of human anatomy, the enigma of his mirrored handwriting. You can see how that would have captivated a boy my age.

Michelangelo was the first artist I loved solely for his art, the Sistine Chapel and the Pietà. I remember reading as a boy that Michelangelo was only twenty-two when he started working on the sculpture, laboring alone for three years. And I remember reading that Michelangelo had heard others saying that his masterpiece had been made by one of his rivals. Outraged, he sneaked into the Vatican and carved his name on the sculpture—the only artwork he ever signed. I don’t blame him. It’s ironic considering what I do, but years later when I forged a piece that somebody else claimed, I think I understood what Michelangelo must have felt.

But despite my interest in art, in most ways I was just an ordinary kid who liked baseball, cars, hanging around with my friends, and girls. If you had asked me what I wanted to be then, I would have told you, without a doubt, a pool hustler. As a teenager, I spent almost all of my spare time at a dark, dingy, ancient pool hall called Polly LeGrew’s—which, if you didn’t know any better, could have been a movie set built in the 1920s. It had six tables, a gumball machine filled with peanuts, and a couple of benches to sit on. It had only a men’s restroom because no woman ever came into Polly’s. The toilet was so ancient that it still had a pull chain and was manufactured by Peerless Victorious, a company that probably went out of business during the Taft administration.

Then, no respectable person spent their time in a pool hall. It was where hoods, loudmouths, gamblers, and bums hung out, but I didn’t care. I loved it. I used to play for hours on end, betting kids and adults in games of Nine-Ball or straight pool. At thirteen, I was beating thirty-year-olds and pocketing ten and twenty dollars a game. If I didn’t have money, people would back me and I’d split the winnings afterward. In school, I got kicked off the basketball team because I left practice to go pick up my new pool cue that had just come in.

When I was “on,” I couldn’t miss a shot. Once, I sank 125 balls straight. At Nine-Ball, I went six racks without missing a shot. These are the kinds of performances you’d expect from a mature adult professional. But to be a real hustler you had to have heart. Heart is when a gambler shoots the same shot whether there’s a dollar on the line or a thousand. I would choke thinking more of the money than sinking the ball. If I had heart, you would have never heard of me as an art forger.

Like many of my friends, I was an altar boy. After mass we’d count donations on a big table in the back room. Some of the guys would slip a couple of fives, tens, or twenties under their robes; then we’d go play pool. I never took any money from the church; I’d just win it later playing Nine-Ball. When they got busted, I got blamed because my pockets were full of cash. It was a bitter disappointment to my mother. Stealing from the church was considered worse than being a child molester. No matter what, though, I never ratted. Ever.

In 1965, I got my girlfriend pregnant. My mother, who had a way with words, said, “You made your bed, now you’re gonna sleep in it.” At sixteen, I became the father of a beautiful baby girl. I got married and started working as a runner on a milk truck.

The night of my wedding, a few of us had a toast with a six-pack of beer and then I went straight to bed because I had to get up at three a.m. to make deliveries in the freezing rain. It was so cold that winter, I used to sit in the refrigerator to “warm up.” Lying awake at night, I stared down the long road ahead and thought to myself, “There’s no way I’m doing this for the rest of my life.”

So, planning to bring Marguerite and my daughter out later, I moved to California.

Meet The Author: Tony Tetro

Tony Tetro is a world-renowned art forger who has produced countless pieces that have easily passed as the work of the Masters from Rembrandt to Monet to Picasso to Dali. For over forty-five years, Tetro’s work duped the art world and appeared as legitimate pieces in museums, galleries, auction houses, and private collections across the globe. In 1989, Tetro was convicted of art forgery in a heavily publicized trial in Los Angeles. He was released from prison in 1994. He has since become a media figure and he continues to paint original works in the style of famous painters for an exclusive list of clients. In 2019, four of his pieces were scandalously discovered in Prince Charles' collection.
Giampiero Ambrosi is the founder of Oak Grove Films and has extensive experience in investigative and hard news documentary. After following Tetro’s story for over twenty years, Ambrosi was part of the team that uncovered Tetro’s inadvertent connection to the 2019 Prince Charles art forgery scandal in the Mail on Sunday, which was nominated for “Investigation of the Year” at the 2020 British Journalism Awards. He is producing a forthcoming feature documentary on the Prince Charles art forgery scandal.

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