For years, Ken Perenyi raked in riches forging masterpieces, convincing even the most discerning experts that his works were the real deal. His works are so flawless that they are still appearing as originals in auction house catalogs, fine art, design and architecture magazines, unexposed as the forgeries they really are. 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 copy 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 and hypocrisies latent to the art world, plus an explanation of just exactly how Perenyi managed to pull it off.
Born in 1949 in Hoboken, New Jersey, Ken Perenyi is a self-taught artist who painted his first pictures during the Summer of Love in 1967, having discovered an uncanny ability to intuitively grasp the aesthetic and technical aspects of the Old Masters. A series of fateful events resulted in what was to become a thirty-year career as a professional art forger. Today he operates his own studio in Madeira Beach, Florida.
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Caveat Emptor: The Secret Life of an American Art Forger
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."
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