Caveat Emptor: The Secret Life of an American Art Forger

Caveat Emptor: The Secret Life of an American Art Forger

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by Ken Perenyi
     
 

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The true confessions of the most infamous art-forger in American history—a catch-me-if-you-can caper that reveals the inner workings of the art world.Featured on CBS SUNDAY MORNING and NBC's TODAYFor over thirty years, Ken Perenyi raked in riches by forging masterpieces, convincing even the most discerning experts that his works were authentic.Growing up as a

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The true confessions of the most infamous art-forger in American history—a catch-me-if-you-can caper that reveals the inner workings of the art world.Featured on CBS SUNDAY MORNING and NBC's TODAYFor over thirty years, Ken Perenyi raked in riches by forging masterpieces, convincing even the most discerning experts that his works were authentic.Growing up as a working-class kid in Fort Lee, New Jersey, Perenyi never dreamed of becoming an art forger. However, when he stumbled upon The Castle, a large crumbling estate in his neighborhood, he found himself in the middle of the New York avant-garde art scene. Under their mentorship, he discovered he possessed a preternatural ability to imitate the works of old masters, an ability that confounded even the most qualified experts and catapulted him to a life of riches.Honest, gripping, and astounding, Caveat Emptor reveals the ironies latent to the art world, while telling the dramatic story of how Perenyi managed to pull it off.

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Editorial Reviews

USA Today
“Reads like a who's who of the art world. If you have any interest in how the art business works, Caveat Emptor is a must-read.”
The New York Times - Patricia Cohen
“Ken Perenyi lived an extravagant lifestyle off his faked works of the finest masters. Then two F.B.I. agents showed up on his doorstep, curious about a couple of paintings sold at Christie’s and Sotheby’s, but actually his own meticulous creations.”
Patricia Cohen - The New York Times
“Ken Perenyi lived an extravagant lifestyle off his faked works of the finest masters. Then two F.B.I. agents showed up on his doorstep, curious about a couple of paintings sold at Christie’s and Sotheby’s, but actually his own meticulous creations.”
Publishers Weekly
Painter, draft dodger, and art world huckster Perenyi offers a facile account of the glory days of his 30-year career as an art forger. His story begins in “the Castle,” a dilapidated New Jersey estate inhabited by two beatnik artists who take in the younger Perenyi as one of their own. With his new mentors, Perenyi pays frequent visits to Max’s Kansas City and rubs shoulders with Warhol acolytes, inspiring him to try his hand at painting. Soon enough, he’s replicating 16th-century Flemish portraits, which he sells to antique dealers and galleries. As his exploits grow in value and range, the threat of being caught rises and the FBI draws near. In theory, there’s enough to this story to pique a discerning reader’s interest; on the page, however, Perenyi’s tale unravels with vacuous prose and a lack of self-awareness or genuine insight; he offers little more than rote, blow-by-blow accounts of his scandals. Most interesting is Perenyi’s description of aging and distressing his forgeries so that they might appear authentically weathered. Unfortunately, he never presents the reader with an authentic depiction of the mind of a pathological fraud. Illus. Agent: Don Fehr, Trident Media Group. (Aug.)
The Smithsonian Magazine

How much is “America’s first and only great art forger,” as the jacket copy describes the author, willing to reveal? Quite a lot, it seems. Perenyi, a graduate of a New Jersey technical school and a Vietnam draft dodger, fell in with a band of artistic New Yorkers and began imitating long-gone masters such as James E. Buttersworth and Martin Johnson Heade. The trick, he learned, was the peripheral details: the materials to which the canvas was fixed, the frame, a faux-aged stain. Perenyi took his canvases to New York antiques shops and specialty galleries, told a tale about a deceased uncle with treasures in his attic, and, more often than not, sold his wares. Some of his paintings reached the upper echelons of the art world and were brokered or bought by famous auction houses.“I never told them the paintings were for real,” Perenyi said to his lawyers in the 1990s, when he found himself at the center of an FBI investigation. “It wasn’t my fault that Christie’s, Phillips, Sotheby’s and Bonhams sold them.” The investigation abruptly ended (the book never makes clear precisely what happened, and the FBI file was marked “exempt from public disclosure,” which may explain the absence of news related to the matter). There are, of course, many morally abhorrent moments in this story but it’s hard not to like this surprisingly entertaining tale of the art world’s shady side. Perenyi is culpable, but he may have had some help from the dealers and auction houses that looked the other way to make a buck.

New York Times
“Few can match Mr. Perenyi's craftsmanship...or his checkered past. His forgeries brought him into contact with mob enforcers, the lawyer Roy Cohn, and Andy Warhol.
During the interview he hauled out a few large, blue plastic tubs and took off their lids. Inside one were stacks of tiny framed canvases in the style of the 18th-century view painter Francesco Guardi, a rival of Canaletto and Pannini. Hundreds of other paintings Mr.
Perenyi has produced are stockpiled in secure storage units nearby, he said.
Spreading half a dozen of his Guardi replicas across the living room floor, Mr. Perenyi said he developed his artistic technique on his own and learned the forensics by working for a restorer and a frame maker when he was in his 20s. Through extensive research and trial and error,
he figured out how to simulate the telltale signs of age: the distinctive spider-web cracking in the paint, the tiny dots of fly droppings, and the slimy green look of old varnish when viewed under ultraviolet light. One of his best, he says, was a Heade-style passion flower that Sothebys sold as a new discovery in 1994 for $717,500. A copy now hangs over his fireplace. Today Mr. Perenyi sees himself as a spiritual heir to the artists he copies.
“I’m convinced that if these artists were alive today, they would thank me,” he said. “I’m somebody that understands and appreciates their work.””— Patricia Cohen
The Wall Street Journal
“By his own admission, Ken Perenyi is a liar, a cheat and a thief—but to give him his due, he is also pretty brilliant. His astonishing memoir, Caveat Emptor, is by turns horrifying and hilarious. An engrossing read.”
The Guardian
“An extraordinary memoir is to reveal how a gifted artist managed to forge his way to riches by conning high-profile auctioneers, dealers and collectors over four decades.”
The Huffington Post
“When the flea-market find of a possible Renoir hit the news, my first thought was: Pierre-Auguste Renoir? Or Ken Perenyi? I had just that morning come to the end of Perenyi's fascinating memoir, Caveat Emptor: The Secret Life of an American Art Forger (Pegasus Books), and my thoughts about art, the art market, and confidence games had been perfectly scrambled. Now I wasn't sure which made for a better fantasy: that the mystery painting was a long lost Renoir bought for seven bucks, or a newly-found Perenyi that would sell for more than $70,000. But one thing was certain; to capture the attention of the art world as it has, the painting must be remarkable. And so, too, is Caveat Emptor. Perenyi's confessions of his confidence game and remarkable art career make for a captivating read. Yet as I reached the end…I was left disappointed — but less because he didn't apologize and promise he was reformed, but more because the book was over. I wanted to read more, to learn more, and to spend more time inside the puzzling mind of such an astounding artist. As Perenyi's title suggests, let the buyer beware. And as the glowing reviews suggest, if you have an interest in art, read Caveat Emptor to discover just how utterly strange, surreal and susceptible is the art world that brought us Renoir and, like it or not, Ken Perenyi. Chances are you'll like it.”
USA Today - Whitney Matheson
“This week I've been absolutely immersed in Ken Perenyi's new memoir, Caveat Emptor: The Secret Life of an American Art Forger (Pegasus). The story is so crazy I can't believe he didn't tell it sooner: For decades the New Jersey native made a very good living forging valuable paintings. In his book, he reveals exactly how he did it…it's a must-read.”
National Public Radio
“Ken
Perenyi made millions painting and selling more than 1,000 forgeries over 30 years. He's imitated the likes of Charles Bird King and James
Buttersworth — and confesses it all in his new book,Caveat Emptor: The Secret Life of an American Art Forger.” Interview with Ken Perenyi on NPR.”
The Tampa Bay Times
“A startling, entertaining tale, told with brio and peppered with bold-face names, and it's already been optioned for film by director Ron Howard….Caveat Emptor is getting plenty of buzz: stories in the New York Times, the Guardian and Le Figaro, radio and TV interviews for Perenyi. Not to mention that movie option. For Perenyi, it's a love story, not a confession of guilt. "For me, it's hard to imagine feeling guilty about creating these beautiful paintings. That has been the love of my life.””
Patricia Cohen - New York Times
“Few can match Mr. Perenyi's craftsmanship...or his checkered past. His forgeries brought him into contact with mob enforcers, the lawyer Roy Cohn, and Andy Warhol.
During the interview he hauled out a few large, blue plastic tubs and took off their lids. Inside one were stacks of tiny framed canvases in the style of the 18th-century view painter Francesco Guardi, a rival of
Canaletto and Pannini. Hundreds of other paintings Mr.
Perenyi has produced are stockpiled in secure storage units nearby, he said.
Spreading half a dozen of his Guardi replicas across the living room floor, Mr. Perenyi said he developed his artistic technique on his own and learned the forensics by working for a restorer and a frame maker when he was in his 20s. Through extensive research and trial and error,
he figured out how to simulate the telltale signs of age: the distinctive spider-web cracking in the paint, the tiny dots of fly droppings, and the slimy green look of old varnish when viewed under ultraviolet light. One of his best, he says, was a Heade-style passion flower that Sothebys sold as a new discovery in 1994 for $717,500. A
copy now hangs over his fireplace. Today Mr. Perenyi sees himself as a spiritual heir to the artists he copies.
“I’m convinced that if these artists were alive today, they would thank me,” he said. “I’m somebody that understands and appreciates their work.””
Richard Neville
“A
fabulous tale of impossible events. While my encounter with Ken
Perenyi was fleeting, I long suspected he would claim his place in the dark arts of illustration and the fun of the chase. Enjoy the ride.”
Whitney Matheson - USA Today
“This week I've been absolutely immersed in Ken Perenyi's new memoir, Caveat Emptor: The Secret Life of an American Art Forger (Pegasus). The story is so crazy I can't believe he didn't tell it sooner: For decades the New Jersey native made a very good living forging valuable paintings. In his book, he reveals exactly how he did it…it's a must-read.”
Library Journal
Perenyi tells the story of his decades-long career as an art forger and how his fakes attracted international audiences eager to bid on his works. Though it began as a simple money-making scheme, the sales of Perenyi's forgeries evolved into a risky, lucrative enterprise. Perenyi channels Holden Caulfield with his forthright, unadorned prose style and straightforward accounts of his past exploits. However, this book could do with more of the navel-gazing and philosophizing that made Caulfield such a sympathetic antihero. While Perenyi reveals the details of his forging endeavors, he remains silent about his post-adolescent personal life, which makes the story feel incomplete, and the book ends with many unanswered questions. Nevertheless, the details of Perenyi's forgeries are fascinating, as is the development of his artistic though duplicitous techniques. VERDICT As the title warns, "Let the buyer beware." This book will make collectors and flea-market shoppers reconsider past and future purchases. It will appeal to fans of Laney Salibury and Aly Sujo's Provenance: How a Con Man and a Forger Rewrote the History of Modern Art or Edward Dolnick's The Forger's Spell: A True Story of Vermeer, Nazis, and the Greatest Art Hoax of the Twentieth Century.—Rachael Dreyer, American Heritage Ctr., Laramie, WY
Kirkus Reviews
Perenyi, who barely finished ninth grade, illustrates how he became America's top art forger. When the author met Tony Masaccio, who lived in a building called the "Castle" near the author's hometown of Fort Lee, N.J., Perenyi was a blank slate just waiting for someone with chalk. The Castle was a center of cosmic energy where dozens of people showed up for Masaccio's parties and long, lost weekends. When he discovered his talent for art, Tom Daly, a local artist, took Perenyi under his wing, sharing his artistic knowledge and encouraging his eager student to learn by copying great works. A book about Han van Meegeren, a Dutch art forger, taught the author the basic principles of forgery, and a job working for a conservator allowed him to hone his talents. Visits with Daly and Masaccio to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the auction rooms of New York City gave Perenyi all he needed to begin producing his "Flemish" paintings. He began with Dutch paintings and moved on to American art and then British sporting pictures. He never copied known works, but he developed an eye for what inspired the artists and created paintings that they could very well have done, always using authentic materials. His eager buyers ranged from local shops to the great auction houses of New York and London. Readers will be captivated as they follow the development of this remarkable talent over a 40-year career.

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781605985022
Publisher:
Pegasus
Publication date:
11/01/2013
Pages:
368
Sales rank:
570,652
Product dimensions:
5.50(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.00(d)

Read an Excerpt

Caveat Emptor: The Secret Life of an American Art Forger


By Ken Perenyi

Pegasus Books

Copyright © 2012 Ken Perenyi
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-60598-360-8


Chapter One

London 1993

Twenty minutes passed as I waited in the oak-paneled consultation room. Well into my second day of a vicious bout with the flu, I was burning with fever and getting nervous. I just wanted to get this over with, get back to my hotel room, and sleep.

The day before, I'd visited the posh bank at Harrods and handed the head teller a withdrawal slip for the equivalent of ninety thousand US dollars in cash. They requested a day for the transaction.

When the door finally opened, I lifted my weary head to see three sour-looking bank officials stride in. One solemnly placed a package the size of a New York City telephone directory on the table and asked dryly, "Do you want to count it?"

The plastic package bearing the emblem of Barclays Bank looked hermetically sealed. Inside, I could see stacks of twenty-pound banknotes bound with neat paper bands. "No thanks," I replied, as a pen and paper were slid in front of me to sign. The three sourpusses looked on in silent alarm as I unceremoniously jammed the package into the canvas safari shoulder bag I'd brought for the occasion. As I rose to leave, an attractive woman poked her head around the door and gently said, "Be careful with that now!"

Desperate to get back into a warm bed, I left Harrods and headed down into the Knightsbridge tube station with part of the package sticking out of my bag. An announcement came over the PA system alerting passengers to pickpockets. I did my best to pull the flap of the bag over my precious cargo, but the strap and buckle wouldn't reach. I clutched it to me and ran.

Back in my hotel room, I took two aspirin and fell into bed. My throat was so sore, it was agony to swallow. A chill had set into my bones and I wished I was back home in Florida soaking in the sun. As I lay in bed, my eyes were fixed upon the package on the dresser: money wired into my account at Harrods a few days before from Christie's auction house, the proceeds from a painting of a pair of hummingbirds that I had left with them some time ago. I fell asleep thinking about my career, how lucky I was, and how it all had started years ago.

* * *

Nearly a year passed without my hearing any more from the FBI and, indeed, I probably would never have heard from them again had it not been for the continual and uncontrolled third-party sales of my pictures. Just as in the 1970s, another critical mass of paintings had been building up, and the stage was set for meltdown number two. The catalyst in this circumstance took the form of two separate incidents that took place in two countries half a world apart:

In order to advertise a sale of British marine paintings in their salesrooms at Knightsbridge, Bonhams had chosen a delightful little painting by James E. Buttersworth consigned by an American woman, which was reproduced for a promotional postcard sent to their clients all over the world. And out on the West Coast of the United States, a failed actor posing as a decorator and would-be relation to the royal family (as in Windsor) was pulling off handsome scores by selling some "family treasures" (as in oil paintings).

The problem was that the Buttersworth had a striking resemblance to another that had sold at Sotheby's a few years previously, and the British paintings being peddled by Queen Elizabeth's "nephew" were just a little too good to be true—so someone alerted the authorities.

It didn't take long for the feds, and whoever was helping them, to connect the dots and round up the culprits. However, this time not only would they discover that the paintings had come directly or indirectly from me, but that I was the artist as well. Nevertheless, the feds would have to prove that a conspiracy existed between me and the scoundrels who had sold those paintings in order to have a case against me.

No matter what the feds found out, they still faced a dilemma. Conspiracies are easy to suspect but difficult to prove. The testimony of cooperating witnesses is not enough. Usually they will lie in order to get themselves off the hook. Incriminating statements made by the target of the investigation and gathered by either wiretaps or hidden recording devices are needed to make a case strong enough to stand up in court.

They were also aware that it's not illegal to create or sell fake paintings, as long as they're sold as such. So instead of raiding my house with a search warrant, which would only have yielded more paintings for their growing collection but prove nothing, the feds—either convinced that I was part of a conspiracy or in an attempt to create one where none existed—chose instead to rely on tricks everybody's seen on TV a million times.

When I got a call from someone who had purchased paintings from me some months previously and was in cahoots with the Royal Decorator, I assumed that he wanted to buy more pictures. But when he nervously said, "There was some trouble over those paintings," I was immediately on my guard. The FBI, he went on to explain, had contacted him and wanted to talk about some paintings. He then asked, "What should I tell them?" I knew at once that this was a setup. "Tell them the truth," I said, and added, "I hope you didn't defraud anyone with those pictures."

(Continues...)



Excerpted from Caveat Emptor: The Secret Life of an American Art Forger by Ken Perenyi Copyright © 2012 by Ken Perenyi. Excerpted by permission of Pegasus Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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