Caveat Emptor: The Secret Life Of An American Art Forger Hardcover – Aug 7 2012
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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.
— The Smithsonian Magazine
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 Wall Street Journal
As Perenyi’s exploits grow in value and range, the threat of being caught rises and the FBI draws near. — Publishers Weekly
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. — Richard Neville
Perenyi illustrates how he became America’s top art forger….Readers will be captivated as they follow the development of this remarkable talent over a 40-year career. — Kirkus Reviews
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 Guardian
About the Author
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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Top Customer Reviews
While it may be a good look at the seedier side of New York in the 60s and 70s, I find that it doesn't exactly deliver what was promised.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
In this readable but somehow elusive memoir, we learn of Perenyi's astonishing career as a forger and many of the secrets of his trade -- but we learn little to nothing of Perenyi himself. It's interesting the way he manages to reveal so much and so little at the same time.
Unlike Han van Meegeren, possibly the world's most famous art swindler who created fake Vermeers and sold them for vast sums, Perenyi was usually content to create new works by second-rank British and American artists of the 18th and 19th centuries and sell them for a few thousand dollars.
He managed to educate himself on the exact techniques of producing cracks in the paint on different surfaces, on the correct varnish, the right canvas, the antique picture frames of which he became a connoisseur, even the tiny fly droppings that accumulate on the surface of old works of art. All this knowledge he generously shares with us.
Perenyi began by specializing in nautical scenes, still lifes, American portraits and then branched out into English sporting scenes of jockeys and hounds. His biggest score was a painting auctioned for more than $700,000 by an American artists called Martin Johnson Heade of passionflowers.
All this detail is quite interesting -- but Perenyi remains an enigma. He tells us he develops a love of good food, fine wine, expensive clothes and becomes a kind of quasi English gentleman with an establishment in Bath and another in London. He is a hard worker and a hard spender. No sooner has he built up a nest egg than the money has all disappeared and he's in search of the next big score.
But his personal life remains opaque. We're not sure about his sexuality, his loves and hatred and what he ultimately believes. And the large cast of characters we meet in the book also for the most part remain two-dimensional. The women all seem to be slim and lovely; the men are various shapes and sizes but without much personality. People close to him occasionally die -- but not much regret is expressed. The most colorful character is Perenyi's some-time room-mate Tony Masaccio, a likeable scoundrel and thief without a moral or responsible bone in his body.
Perenyi also seems to have been extraordinarily loose-lipped. It seems as many of the dealers he sells his work to know he was a faker -- and don't care. As for Perenyi, he at one point bemoans the fact that he wasn't born in the 18th century when he could have been a grand success as a painter of English hunting scenes. "I felt misunderstood, victimized by fate, and stuck in a century where I didn't belong," he writes.
Referring to Heade, Perenyi sees himself almost as channeling the artist's talent rather than diluting it with fakes. "I was convinced that Heade would thank me, if he could, for carrying on the development of his work," he writes.
From the very first chapter, the book promises a climax as the FBI investigates Perenyi's vast record of forgery and begins to close in -- but the climax is never delivered. The investigation and the book both peter out and we're told that the author continues to produce forgeries until this very day.
This book is certainly interesting -- but the author does not give us enough of himself to make it truly compelling.
Caveat Emptor reads like a novel, starring a cast of characters that Donald E. Westlake would have loved: wise guy New Yorkers, crooked auction house dealers, leather clad enforcers, and even the legendary--or notorious, depending on your point of view--Roy Cohn. A longtime pal makes a habit of boosting not fancy cars but station wagons: they make hauling late-night loot easier. And then there's the artsy-fartsy Soho crowd: Perenyi glides smoothly between them all. There is as much life in the fast lane as art forgery here, but that's part of the charm, at least once the rather tiresome sixties are over with.
But it's the art forgery that were really here for, and Perenyi is happy to divulge his secrets: the statute of limitations has run out, and the FBI never got the goods on him. He started producing fakes just to see if he could, and then it became his living. He spills all the details: finding old canvases or boards to repaint, and appropriately aged wood panels (drawer bottoms from antique furniture are a good source), intently studying the styles of the original painters.
He is inadvertently helped along the way by many experts, such as an old world framer maker who clues him in on the past masters' preferred way to make gesso, the primer for a canvas, using rabbit skin glue. The hot Florida sun bakes his paintings dry, rubber balls bounced on the canvas create the right pattern of cracks; he even mimics the pattern of microscopic fly droppings that accumulate over the decades on old paintings.
The art galleries and auction houses are only too glad to sell his paintings, pretty much no questions asked. Perenyi repeatedly portrays their greed, and in one amusing scene, after unwittingly getting stiffed by Sotheby's in London, gets his revenge by engineering a situation where some Sotheby's workers could lose their jobs. "Let them go out an earn a honest living for once!" he says, seemingly unaware of the irony of his statement.
Perenyi never had formal art training of any sort, but obviously is a master of the craft. Now his fakes are collected as such--perhaps someone will come along and fake his fakes! In the end, despite plenty of money stashed away and a life of leisure in the offing, Perenyi keeps at it. "Painting pictures had totally consumed my life," he writes. "The more pictures I turned out, the better they became, and that just inspired me to paint more. I lived in a perpetual pursuit of another subject." After reading Caveat Emptor, we're glad he did.
Caveat Emptor was a page turner from beginning to end. Perenyi is far from the pretentious art aficionado I had originally pegged him for, in fact his wit, sometimes faltering self esteem (especially growing of age in the 60's and trying to figure out what he was going to do with his life) and at times self-deprecating personality gives Perenyi a very human side. The goings on in Perenyi's apartment building in NYC, then called the "The Ferguson Club", was not only hilarious, some of the characters could have all been straight out of the classic Pulitzer awarded "Confederacy of Dunces". I was so taken by the building and it's tenants I had to go and stand in front of the actual building the last time I found myself in Manhattan!
There's a part of the story when one of the forgeries is going to be cleaned by Sotheby's auction house--which puts you in the room with Perenyi and leaves you with sweaty, clammy palms. Although I didn't want the story to end, I was glad that moved so beautifully and so quickly. I would much rather be left wanting more, than to have to read too much. Well done!!!
Okay, he probably doesn't tell the whole story, but he gives enough details to give you a great read. He takes you on his guiltless journey through how he became a forger, including his studies of old masterpieces, and his take on the auction house sales world. and ultimately how he fooled so many buyers.
If you like a good book on art crime, this is one to add to your stack.
As a story it is entertaining but as a memoir I found it lacking in writing style and substance. I would have appreciated more research into the artists he forged, or about the art industry. For instance, there is no scale with which to compare the amount he received for his forgeries. It would have been easy enough to say the average value of the original paintings at the time so that the reader can better appreciate Perenyi's skills as a forger. Also, there is no "character development" in the sense that the author does not reveal his motivations or inner thoughts beyond financial needs and the thrill of duping experts.