Feature

Caveat Emptor: The Secret Life of an American Art Forger by Ken Perenyi

Ken Perenyi provides delectable dish on his three-decade career of forging paintings and passing them off to the art world.

(Pegasus, $28)

Take Ken Perenyi’s claims with a grain of salt, said Jonathan Lopez in The Wall Street Journal. The man is “a liar, a cheat, and a thief.” But in this “astonishing” new memoir, the New Jersey native also provides delectable dish on what he describes as a three-decade career of forging paintings and passing off his brilliant fakes to antique shops, dealers, and auction houses. A high school dropout, Perenyi claims to have dodged the Vietnam War draft by feigning mental illness before he fell in with a group of New York–area artists, one of whom encouraged him to study painting technique by copying past masters. After dabbling in conceptual art and failing, he became inspired while reading a book about notorious Dutch forger Han van Meegeren. He had found his ignoble vocation.

“Perenyi happily confesses all in Caveat Emptor,” said Susannah Cahalan in the New York Post. And why shouldn’t he? He claims that the FBI dropped an investigation of his dealings long ago; what’s more, the statute of limitations on his crimes has since expired. So he takes readers with him to the antique store that paid $800 for his first forgery—of a 16th-century Flemish portrait—in 1968. During the ’70s, we’re told, he passed hundreds of paintings. But he’s apparently also had many close calls. In the early ’90s, an expert at Sotheby’s battled to have one of Perenyi’s canvases tested, but lost. The work instead fetched $717,500 at auction.

“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,” said Chloë Schama in Smithsonian. Perenyi says as much, claiming that he was abetted by crooked dealers and that the auction houses were more than willing to play along. He hasn’t ceased working as a forger himself, though he now does so legally, selling his fakes to interior designers whose clients request copies of famous works. His past behavior may appall many readers. Still, “it’s hard not to like this surprisingly entertaining tale of the art world’s shady side.”

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