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Caveat Emptor: The Secret Life of an American Art Forger [Kindle Edition]

Ken Perenyi
4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (179 customer reviews)

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Book Description

It is said that the greatest con man in the world is the one who has never been caught—and here for the first time is the astonishing story of America’s most accomplished art forger
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, and certain to be a bombshell for the major international auction houses and galleries, here is the story of America’s greatest art forger.

Editorial Reviews


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)

“Few can match Mr. Perenyi's craftsmanship...or his checkered past. His forgeries brought him into contact with mob enforcers, the lawyer Roy Cohn, and Andy Warhol.  During the interview he hauled out a few large, blue plastic tubs and took off their lids. Inside one were stacks of tiny framed canvases in the style of the 18th-century view painter Francesco Guardi, a rival of Canaletto and Pannini. Hundreds of other paintings Mr. Perenyi has produced are stockpiled in secure storage units nearby, he said. Spreading half a dozen of his Guardi replicas across the living room floor, Mr. Perenyi said he developed his artistic technique on his own and learned the forensics by working for a restorer and a frame maker when he was in his 20s. Through extensive research and trial and error, he figured out how to simulate the telltale signs of age: the distinctive spider-web cracking in the paint, the tiny dots of fly droppings, and the slimy green look of old varnish when viewed under ultraviolet light. One of his best, he says, was a Heade-style passion flower that Sothebys sold as a new discovery in 1994 for $717,500. A copy now hangs over his fireplace. Today Mr. Perenyi sees himself as a spiritual heir to the artists he copies. “I’m convinced that if these artists were alive today, they would thank me,” he said. “I’m somebody that understands and appreciates their work.”” (Patricia Cohen - New York Times)

“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)

“When the flea-market find of a possible Renoir hit the news, my first thought was: Pierre-Auguste Renoir? Or Ken Perenyi? I had just that morning come to the end of Perenyi's fascinating memoir, Caveat Emptor: The Secret Life of an American Art Forger (Pegasus Books), and my thoughts about art, the art market, and confidence games had been perfectly scrambled. Now I wasn't sure which made for a better fantasy: that the mystery painting was a long lost Renoir bought for seven bucks, or a newly-found Perenyi that would sell for more than $70,000. But one thing was certain; to capture the attention of the art world as it has, the painting must be remarkable. And so, too, is Caveat Emptor. Perenyi's confessions of his confidence game and remarkable art career make for a captivating read. Yet as I reached the end…I was left disappointed -- but less because he didn't apologize and promise he was reformed, but more because the book was over. I wanted to read more, to learn more, and to spend more time inside the puzzling mind of such an astounding artist. As Perenyi's title suggests, let the buyer beware. And as the glowing reviews suggest, if you have an interest in art, read Caveat Emptor to discover just how utterly strange, surreal and susceptible is the art world that brought us Renoir and, like it or not, Ken Perenyi. Chances are you'll like it.” (The Huffington Post)

“This week I've been absolutely immersed in Ken Perenyi's new memoir, Caveat Emptor: The Secret Life of an American Art Forger (Pegasus). The story is so crazy I can't believe he didn't tell it sooner: For decades the New Jersey native made a very good living forging valuable paintings. In his book, he reveals exactly how he did it…it's a must-read.” (Whitney Matheson - USA Today)

“Ken Perenyi made millions painting and selling more than 1,000 forgeries over 30 years. He's imitated the likes of Charles Bird King and James Buttersworth — and confesses it all in his new book, Caveat Emptor: The Secret Life of an American Art Forger.” Interview with Ken Perenyi on NPR.” (National Public Radio)

“A startling, entertaining tale, told with brio and peppered with bold-face names, and it's already been optioned for film by director Ron Howard….Caveat Emptor is getting plenty of buzz: stories in the New York Times, the Guardian and Le Figaro, radio and TV interviews for Perenyi. Not to mention that movie option.  For Perenyi, it's a love story, not a confession of guilt.  "For me, it's hard to imagine feeling guilty about creating these beautiful paintings. That has been the love of my life.”” (The Tampa Bay Times)

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.

Product Details

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
61 of 67 people found the following review helpful
Ken Perenyi grew up in New Jersey, failed at school and seemed destined for obscurity when as a teenager he fell in with some of the drug-soaked denizens of the swinging sixties who turned him on first to acid and then to art.

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.
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28 of 30 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Buyer Beware October 10, 2012
Well into his career as an art forger, Ken Perenyi meets a reclusive, eccentric art collector living in Piermont, New York, in the Hudson Valley. Perenyi quotes Jimmy, the collector, as saying that art dealers "are a bunch of prostitutes. And their primary appreciation of a picture is its price tag." That serves as a leitmotif for Caveat Emptor, and indeed, the buyer should beware. Perenyi found his calling as an artist making fake paintings, first in the style of 17th century Dutch portraits, then moving into 19th century American and British art. In this entertaining book, he details his methods--and tells how he fell into the trade, mostly thanks to the greed of dealers--and buyers.

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.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An insight into a unique aspect of American art history February 10, 2013
Format:Kindle Edition
A pretty amazing story; a real tell all on how he did it.

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.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Caveat Emptor (or "Buyer Beware") is an amazing story I can only hope someone turns into a movie. Years ago I had come across art forger Ken Perenyi's name and the magazine article intrigued me. It wasn't until this past summer that I saw him interviewed on the Today Show and I realized had "come out of hiding" and penned his incredible story. I was slightly apprehensive about buying the book only because I was afraid that a story based in and around classical artwork might fall a little flat (I love art, but I draw the line at art history as I find it can be a tad tedious for my taste).
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!!!
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars REVEALING
Engrossing insight on art forgery - a fascinating read.
Published 1 day ago by NGK
5.0 out of 5 stars The book was easy to read
How fascinating to follow the mind of this incredible forger! I learned a lot about the different parts of a painting and had to take my hat off to the research he did before... Read more
Published 22 days ago by EMMS
2.0 out of 5 stars It's OK
This is an interesting story; however, it is poorly written. Mr. Perenyi is a name dropping megalomaniac who obviously develops an appreciation for art technique without sparing an... Read more
Published 1 month ago by Kate
5.0 out of 5 stars It was a very good read: )
I've wanted to read this book since I found it at Barnes and Nobles forever ago. Finally bought the e-book version and devoured the book in about 2 days. It was a very good read :)
Published 1 month ago by Naeo
4.0 out of 5 stars Painter beware!
I would recommend this book to an artist, an art critic, an art historian or anyone directly involved in the art of painting. Why? Read more
Published 2 months ago by Tangerine
4.0 out of 5 stars Very candid. Good story telling too.
I liked, really liked it. I found a great deal of it fascinating. I'm an anthology student and been interested in it as an interest and hobby for years. Read more
Published 2 months ago by Amazon Customer
5.0 out of 5 stars A must-read, especially for an artist.
Fascinating reading about a young man of little education who winds up as probably the world's most famous forger of art works. Read more
Published 2 months ago by Noel Rappe
5.0 out of 5 stars Reads like a Novel
Although no one can deny Ken's forgeries are illegal, he is a gifted artist. I'd be interested to see his own work in a gallery.
Published 2 months ago by Andrea L Larsen
5.0 out of 5 stars Interesting story
It was amazing how this guy got away with this for as long as he did. If you enjoy art and art history add to your reading list.
Published 2 months ago by Virginia Conlon
5.0 out of 5 stars One of the Best Reads This Year
Not just a fascinating autobiography, but exposes the greed in the entire antique shop and auction house business. Well written with good pacing and story telling.
Published 3 months ago by John Willis
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