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New Tell All Book by Master Forger – UPDATED – “There’s no one who does what I do”

July 8, 2012

Ken Perenyi at his home in Madeira Beach, Florida. Photograph: James Borchuck/Tampa Bay Times

A new book by a self-proclaimed painting forger may prove embarrassing to some collectors, scholars, auction houses, dealers and institutions – Caveat Emptor: The Secret Life of an American Art Forger reportedly covers the multi-decade and very successful career of Ken Perenyi, an American who lived in London for 30 years and repeatedly fobbed off bogus works as actual 18th & 19th century paintings. According to a report in The Guardian (by way of Ton Cremers at the Museum Security Network):

Perenyi’s specialities included British sporting and marine paintings of the 18th and 19th centuries. He concentrated his efforts on duplicating the work of well-known but second-rank artists, on the basis that the output of the greatest masters is too fully documented. Dealers were usually told that he had found a picture in a relative’s attic or spotted it in a car boot sale.

Perhaps Perenyi’s proudest moment came when a forgery of Ruby Throats with Apple Blossoms, by the American Martin Johnson Heade, made the front page of a national newspaper and was heralded as a major “discovery”. It later fetched nearly $100,000 (£64,000) at auction in New York.

Claiborne Hancock, of Pegasus Books [Perenyi’s publisher], describes the revelations in Caveat Emptor as “a bombshell for the major international auction houses and galleries”.

Perenyi believes he is free finally to publish his story because, although he was investigated by the FBI, the case was closed in 2003 and is subject to the statute of limitations. He said he has never discovered why the case was dropped, but he suspects the art world may have been keen to prevent the exposure of the serial forgeries.

UPDATE: The New York Times reports Perenyi is now openly selling his works to, “Palm Beach decorators, antiques dealers, professionals, business executives and others who want the look of cultured gentility without the price tag.” The paintings, Times writer Particia Cohen says, “Are the art-world equivalent of a three-carat cubic zirconia that can be flaunted as a Tiffany diamond.”

He may be legit now, but his many years worth of forgeries are still in circulation:

Mr. Perenyi estimates that hundreds of his fakes remain in circulation. Occasionally he glimpses one (“It’s like bumping into an old friend”) in an auction catalog or in a magazine. “I miss the addictive thrill of fooling the experts,” he said. “It was great sport for me.”

A spokesman for Sotheby’s declined to comment. A spokesman for Christie’s said that the names of consigners are confidential but noted that a work Mr. Perenyi refers to as his own, a rendering attributed to Heade of two hummingbirds that was sold in 1993, is in the artist’s catalogue raisonné, the definitive compendium of his work. The author of the Heade catalogue, Theodore E. Stebbins Jr. , a curator of American art at the Harvard Art Museums, said that if Mr. Perenyi’s account is persuasive, he would need to re-examine the work.

The difference between Mr. Perenyi’s legal business and his criminal one is that now he makes clear his paintings are reproductions, even though they have the artist’s signature. Fraud applies only when someone actively misrepresents a copy as an original.

But he continues to take immense pride in his skill. “There’s no one who does what I do,” he said.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. July 8, 2012 10:42 AM

    I do get a perverse pleasure from seeing the art world sometimes played for the fool it is!

  2. August 3, 2012 7:55 AM

    Friday, August 3, 2012
    “CAVEAT EMPTOR: The Secret [Ghostwritten] Life of an [Unethical, Dishonest] ]American ‘Art’ (scare quotes intended) Forger”
    Unconvicted because never charged yet fully admitting his past, American art forger Ken Perenyi’s ghostwritten “memoir” (scare quotes intended) titled “CAVEAT EMPTOR: The Secret Life of an American Art Forger”, the ghostwritten confessional tell-all of how a “tune in, turn on, drop out” high school kid from 1960s New Jersey learned to forge the great 19th century American artists and dupe the biggest auction houses and galleries in New York and London for 30 years without getting caught, was edited by Claiborne Hancock at Pegasus Books and agented by Don Fehr at Trident Media Group. Unfortunately, he never presents the reader with an authentic depiction of the mind of a pathological fraud, which is really what the book should have been all about. Wait for the movie, with Leonardo DeCaprio reprising his role as Frank, er, Ken Perenyi?

    Perenyi, a Hungarian-American most likely, given his noble surname, barely finished ninth grade, but his ghostwriter (name withheld but mentioned in the book’s acknowledgements page) illustrates how he became one of America’s top unethical dishonest art forgers. Why the culture that spawned him in now celebrating him as culture hero and celebrity, with a movie option on the table as well, is beyond words. But this is America, and “catch me if you can” is the going motto, Madoff to Perenyi. Thing is Madoff got caught and charged (and sentenced), while Perenyi walked scot free.

    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 30 year “career’ as a professional and dishonest and unethical art forger. Today he operates his own studio in Madeira Beach, Florida where he lives single — a confirmed bachelor — and afraid of his own aging process and fearing death.

    SNYNOPSIS: When Perenyi met Tony Masaccio, who lived in a building called the “Castle” near the author’s hometown of Fort Lee, N.J., he was a young uneducated and untutored guy, 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 in the 1960s. 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.

    Some readers who don’t care about ethics or honesty in America might be be captivated as they follow the development of this remarkable yet flawed talent over a 40-year career. Ghostwtitten by Allan Smithee. BACKGROUNDER: Ten years ago, an FBI investigation in conjunction with the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Southern District of New York was about to expose a scandal in the art world that would have been front-page news in New York and London. After a trail of fake paintings of astonishing quality led federal agents to art dealers, renowned experts, and the major auction houses, the investigation inexplicably ended, despite 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 the story, in detail, of how he pulled it all off.
    Glamorous stories of art-world scandal have always captured the public imagination. However, not since Clifford Irving’s 1969 bestselling Fake has there been a story at all like this one. Caveat Emptor is unique in that it is the first and only book by and about America’s first and only great art forger. And unlike other forgers, Perenyi produced no paper trail, no fake provenance whatsoever; he let the paintings speak for themselves. And that they did, routinely mesmerizing the experts in mere seconds.
    In the tradition of Frank Abagnale’s ”Catch Me If You Can”, — SEE? WHAT DID WE TELL YOU?!!! — and certain to be an unethical and cockamamie bombshell for Pegasus Books and the MSM, here is the story of one of America’s greatest yet unethical and dishonest — let
    s be honest! — art forgers.

    PW SAYS: Painter, draft dodger, and art world huckster Perenyi offers a facile, ghostwritten account of the ”glory” (scare quotes intended) 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 his hangups with his own aging process 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. Born in New Jersey some 63 years ago to a Hungarian-American factory machinist name Mr Perenyi and his wife Katya, Ken stil single after all these years, now lives in Florida and worries about getting old and hearing Death’s sad knocking on his door. But for now, there’s the book and Hollywood is calling! So there IS redemption in America, and Ken is living proof. Sort of.

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