“Caveat Emptor: The Secret Life of an American Art Forger" by Ken Perenyi gives readers an inside look at some of the more obscure, and less than honorable, aspects of the art world.
As an aimless teenager in the 1960s, Perenyi began spending time at a local mansion in Hoboken, New Jersey. Known locally as "The Castle," it was the on-again, off-again home to some of the quirkier members of the New York City art scene, like Peter Max and Andy Warhol. For a teenager who barely graduated high school, getting to spend time at the Castle, party with famous artists, and take trips to art galleries was a dream come true. What I found most interesting was that, despite their status, Perenyi’s new artist friends were loyal to him. They appreciated his love for creating art and actively encouraged him to pursue it.
Along the way, Perenyi discovered he had an innate understanding of how great painters constructed their masterpieces. He could accurately imitate an artist’s brushwork, use of perspective, and layering of colors to achieve a desired look.
Then, through a stroke of felonious serendipity, Perenyi came across a book that described the work of master forger Han van Meegeren. Active in the 1930s and 40s, van Meegeren made a fortune forging paintings by Dutch painter Vermeer. Through van Meegeren, Perenyi discovered he could scrape the original paint off an old painting of minor value and use the canvas to make a more valuable forgery. Perenyi also learned that the bottoms of antique drawers were excellent for his wood panel forgeries. To age his finished "masterpieces,” Perenyi put them out in the sun for several weeks. This baked the paint to a hardness that would otherwise take decades of natural aging.
Then there was the issue of fly droppings, which are frequently found on old paintings that’ve been stored in an attic or barn. Fly droppings are considered a sign of authenticity and help experts determine the age of a painting. Perenyi found that a mixture of epoxy glue and black paint pigment fooled even the most discriminating art expert.
After selling a series of forged paintings by minor artists from the 19th Century to minor collectors of the 20th Century, Perenyi discovered he was as natural a "con" as he was an artist. Buoyed by his early successes, he went on to forge paintings by more famous artists and began peddling them to more influential and powerful art collectors. This was Perenyi’s undoing. Collectors became suspicious and even the FBI took an interest in his activities. Needless to say, Perenyi's career took an unfortunate turn. Some might say he painted himself into a corner.
Perenyi demonstrates in “Caveat Emptor” that he’s as talented a writer as he was a con-"artist." His descriptions of the people he worked with, or rather swindled, made for a very interesting read. It struck me just how vulnerable the art world is to fraud. While I wouldn't recommend that you buy one of his paintings, I do recommend that you read his book.
Reviewer David Bross lives in Williamsport. He’s a retired elementary school teacher.