Leonardo da Vinci once said “simplicity is the ultimate sophistication,” which is well highlighted in Ken Perenyi’s captivating autobiography, Caveat Emptor: The Secret Life of an American Art Forger.
Ten years prior to the publication of this book, an FBI investigation in conjunction with the US Attorney’s Office in the Southern District of New York was about to reveal a scandal in the art world that would have been front-page news in New York and London. Federal agents hot on the trail of forged paintings of astounding quality, were guided to art dealers, esteemed experts, and illustrious auction houses.
The investigation abruptly ceased, notwithstanding an abundance of evidence collected. The case was closed and the FBI file was marked ‘exempt from public disclosure’. Now that the statute of limitations on these crimes has expired and the case appears hermetically sealed shut by the FBI, this book, Caveat Emptor, is Ken Perenyi’s confession. It is his account, in detail, of how he pulled it all off.
Perenyi graduated from high school in the late 1960s with a worthless diploma and no prospects. He dodged the draft by convincing the army doctors that he was mentally unstable. To make ends meet he restored classic cars and sold them on for a profit. His social life consisted of hanging out with artists at an old mansion near the Palisades cliffs. It was there that he met Tom Daly, the psychedelic illustrator, who taught him the basics of studio art and encouraged him to study and copy the old masters in order to give him an understanding of their techniques and traditions. He also met a rather dubious character named Tony Masaccio; a petty burglar and an art-world hanger-on, who introduced him to small-time larceny. Once, in a desperate attempt to keep clean, they actually stole a bath!
In an attempt to succeed as an artist he moved to Manhattan, where in a determined effort he tried to establish himself as a conceptual artist by cramming canvases into Plexiglas boxes. Unsurprisingly, the overall effect was incredibly dull. Inspiration came to him after reading a book about Han van Megeren, the celebrated art forger who sold a forged Vermeer to Hermann Goering (Commander-in-Chief of the Luftwaffe) during World War II.
With his newly acquired ideology he set about reproducing fakes based on Dutch and Flemish paintings which he had studied at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Antique paintings over the years crack in a distinctive manner, which is what experts examine to determine the authenticity of a piece.
Perenyi experimented until he devised a method of simulating the ageing effects by scratching the surface of paintings with a needle and bathing them in the sun for a period of time. Although these paintings were somewhat crude, and although unsure of the reaction he would receive, Perenyi took his forgeries to antique shops. To his amazement, dealers were happy to lighten his load. Forgery was undoubtedly the way ahead for Ken Perenyi.
His grooming as an art forger came in the form of a legitimate job. Securing a job at a Manhattan art-restoration studio was a considerable learning curve for him. Whilst there, he became familiar with the miniscule details that provide proof of an artwork’s age and origin. By manipulating the glue binder applied to each painting’s foundation, he successfully simulated age cracks which he incorporated in his later forgeries, which he cunningly combined with period-appropriate stretchers and canvases.
He also used solvents to create the effect of aged varnish, which exhibits special fluorescent qualities under UV light, a common and simple test to establish the authenticity of an old painting. Another trick he used was to fabricate ‘repairs’ on the surface of the painting, suggesting that it had undergone restoration in the past. Attention to detail was of paramount importance to Perenyi, right down to fly droppings. By applying minute droplets of hardened epoxy to imitate fly droppings that over time get stuck to the canvas, especially where the canvas meets the frame, he made the forgery appear more credible.
After meeting with an eccentric art lover and collector, James H Ricau, who incidentally despised art dealers, Perenyi opened an art restoration studio in Florida to front his now lucrative forgery business. Under the guidance of Ricau, he studied and copied the style of 19th century American artists. These included the nature painter Martin Johnson Heade, nautical artist James Edward Buttersworth and many others. He also successfully reproduced British sporting art.
With the help of Ricau, Perenyi claims to have marketed these forgeries through a network of dubious art dealers at high-end venues such as the Miami Beach Antique Show.
Finding a safe environment in which to sell his forged paintings was a considerable risk and required some bravado on his part. With complete confidence in his work, Perenyi sold his paintings as part of
his own private collection at public auctions held by the top names associated with the antique world: Christie’s, Sotheby’s, Bonham’s and other major houses. His achievements were incredible. A forged Martin Johnson Heade bird-and-flower composition went for an astonishing US$717,500 in 1994 at an auction held by Sotheby’s in New York. Perenyi said, “Rumour had it that the buyer was Richard Manoogian, a billionaire collector who had assembled the finest collection of Martin Johnson Heades in the world. Curious thing, though: around a year after the sale, a rumour hit the street that an important Heade sold at Sotheby’s last year disintegrated during restoration.”
Perenyi added, “Oh, well, such is life.” There is neither an inventory nor an estimate of the number of paintings he introduced to the art world. Furthermore, there is no list of unsuspecting victims who bought his works and no mention of how many important and prized collections his paintings have infected.
Stories of ingenious art thieves and skillful forgers have always consumed the public’s attention. Despite this, not since Clifford Irving’s 1996 bestselling book Fake!, The Story of Elmyr De Hory, the greatest art forger of our time, has there been a story like Ken Perenyi’s. It is unclear as to why Parenyi was never charged by the FBI.
According to Perenyi the FBI closely followed his career for some five years, and although they had enough seized Buttersworths to open a gallery, they effectively just gave up. Exactly why they gave up is a question that may never be answered. Perhaps it was simply impossible to prove their case whilst dealing with a labyrinth of state law, federal law and international law; not forgetting the tight-lipped wealthy, influential characters who undoubtedly participated in these crimes.
Caveat Emptor is a wonderfully written account of Ken Perenyi’s intriguing journey into the seedier side of the art world, and of how he duped the experts. In the tradition of Frank Abagnale’s Catch Me If You Can, and certain to be a bombshell for the major international auction houses and galleries, here is the story of America’s greatest art forger. Incidentally, anyone who is interested in buying a copy of a masterpiece should contact Ken Perenyi, he is selling them legally.
Lachlan Munro Murray is a Scottish writer living in Salalah, Oman