Customer Reviews: Caveat Emptor: The Secret Life of an American Art Forger
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VINE VOICEon August 28, 2012
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. 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.
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on 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.

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.
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on November 26, 2012
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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on April 2, 2013
Ken Perenyi reminisces about his early days starting out as an art forger, until recent years when the FBI investigated him. His escapades are thrilling and give an insider's view of the art industry. Not knowing much about the art world, I found it fascinating to learn how the author managed to convincingly reproduce the effects of age on paintings, and how he duped experts and auction houses.

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.
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on February 10, 2013
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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on January 13, 2014
Among the less seemly of American literary traditions is the glorification of villains. Bonnie and Clyde, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Willie Sutton - the list is long. Comes now Ken Perenyi, a low life liar, swindler and art forger. In line with this ignoble tradition, this memoir transforms his crimes into playful and glamorous events.

Perenyi, who barely made it through high school, makes no secret of the fact that his account was patched together by a host of ghost writers and editors. They did a commendable job; the book is readable and amusing. Especially intriguing are the mechanical details of how Perenyi manufactured his forgeries. He skillfully employed period wooden boards or canvases, found old frames, developed ways to simulate ancient cracks, fly specks and aged varnish.

Perenyi was clever, of that there is little doubt. He brags about his prowess and is eminently proud of his deceptions and deceits. He is proud that he outmaneuvered and outlasted the FBI which had him in its sight for years. He seems proud, also, that his friends and associates were, by and large, also riff-raff, thieves and con-men of one sort or another.

Nowhere do these “confessions” so much as hint at regret concerning the significant harm Perenyi brought to the art market. That harm involves far more than just the individuals who paid large sums for forgeries they believed to be authentic. The larger damage is that trust is widely undermined. The entire market for serious paintings by renowned artists loses credibility. When even alleged experts and auction houses are either fooled or complicit, whom is one to believe?

It is hard to know how to rate this book. Its anecdotes about the antics of Perenyi’s thuggish friends are entertaining and the details of his own chicanery are not without fascination. But turning an immoral and unrepentant crook into a sort of hero is not a commendable act. Adding to his fame and wealth by means of a publication celebrating his criminality amounts to a form of vindication that he hardly deserves.
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on September 6, 2012
This is almost a very good book - unfortunately Ken Perenyi's skills as a brilliant art forger are beyond his skills as a writer. Mr. Perenyi must have led an extraordinary life in New York during the days of The Studio and Andy Warhol, but it reads as though the manuscript was dictated - vivid memories are recalled but without any linking material or insights or reflections means there's no real narrative, just a series of remembered highlights over many years. Likewise the time he spent in London getting to know the auction houses and their weaknesses is covered as though he's writing a police report - the facts, but just the facts. His companion of many years is reported as being diagnosed with HIV Aids in London, which means cancelling plans to buy a house there, and returning to New York where his friend died shortly afterward surrounded by his family - but Perenyi never mentions him again and goes to some lengths to talk about his early girlfriends. No colour, no descriptions, no real feeling that we know Ken Perenyi at the end of the book any better than we did at the beginning. And perhaps that's the way he wants it. I found the book frustrating because I really liked the writer and his story, but because Perenyi never allows us inside his head, we're left with tantalising glimpses of a truly incredible life, presented in the blandest way imaginable.
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on February 16, 2013
I just finished Caveat Emptor and I'll have to say I found it riveting. I'm a graphic designer and illustrator who does some painting myself,so that may have predisposed me to purchase this book. Also Ken Perenyi lives 8 miles up the road from me in Madiera Beach, FL. I hope to meet him at some point and discuss his book. One learns a lot of how good "fakes" are created and all of the effort that goes into it. It's also interesting how he chose the artists to copy and how he was able to replicate their style. Toward the end of the book, when the FBI is hot on his trail, this book is a real page turner to find out how he stays one step ahead of the law.
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on January 22, 2015
I read this book after hearing the author interviewed on NPR and I have to agree with some of the other skeptical reviewers. I was disappointed in the glib almost gonzo writing style where everything seems exaggerated, over simplified, compressed, accelerated, in short just not believable. Are we really to understand that the author just stumbled by accident upon "The Castle" and within weeks was swept up in the late 60s art scene, dealing in antiques and fobbing off forgeries right and left? It reminds me (in style not quality!) of Paul Bowles' autobiography "Without Stopping" which some critics referred to as "Without Telling". Nothing you really want to know is revealed! I don't question Perenyi's artistic abilities - there is plenty of external evidence that he is skilled forger. By the end I came to believe that "Caveat Emptor" is just as much a con as the author's artistic life was, and that none of this really happened exactly as describes. It is a form of myth making.
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on July 25, 2012
I bought this book after reading the NYT Daily feature on it a couple of weeks ago. It's a fascinating peak behind the curtains of the art world. There's so much money at stake in verifying and selling the true masterpieces. It's no wonder the big auction houses called off the FBI once they realized they'd been selling forgeries for millions without properly vetting them. This book is a fascinating look inside a true artist's uncommon talent. We appreciate remakes of classic and modern music every day. Why shouldn't an artist who reproduces masterpieces be appreciated as well? Especially when the reproductions are apparently close to perfection. Would you appreciate a perfect copy of the Golden Gate Bridge or the Beatles' Imagine? I would.
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