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'A Contest Of Wits': A Former Forger Recalls His Art

Aug 26, 2012
Originally published on August 27, 2012 10:11 am

Next time you're admiring a 19th century American master painting at a museum or auction house, take a closer look. What looks like an authentic creation complete with cracks and yellowing varnish could actually be the work of forger Ken Perenyi.

Perenyi made millions of dollars over 30 years with more than 1,000 forgeries, allowing him to jet set around the world. His highest earning work was a Martin Johnson Heade forgery that sold for more than $700,000.

Perenyi tells the story of how he got away with it in his new book, Caveat Emptor: The Secret Life of an American Art Forger.

So does he hold on to guilt about duping individuals, museums and galleries who paid top dollar for his work?

"No. Not at all," Perenyi tells Laura Sullivan, guest host of weekends on All Things Considered. "I take pride in my work, and I think it speaks for itself. I would find it difficult to feel bad about creating beautiful paintings."

Perenyi has imitated the likes of Charles Bird King, James Buttersworth and James Herring, and believes the artists would appreciate his work.

"I'm convinced that if they were alive today, they would truly be thankful," he says.

In Perenyi's eyes, he's paid them a compliment: "I feel that they would be greatly flattered and would be more than happy to put their signature on any one of my paintings."

Perenyi's skill is unquestionable. So why didn't he build a career of his own as an artist instead of latching on to the success of others?

"That's a good question. I would have to say that, well, part of me wishes that maybe things were a little different," he says.

In the end, however, he attributes his choices to fate.

"Every time I was trying to put my collection together, one thing or another would happen that would cause me to have my plans disrupted, and I always had to fall back on forgery to survive," he says.

The FBI eventually caught on to the forgeries in the late 1990s and began an investigation. Mysteriously, no charges were ever brought against Perenyi. He says he thinks that's because of pressure from auction houses Christie's and Sotheby's, which could have come under fire for selling his forgeries.

The investigation prompted Pereyni to adopt a safer business model. He continues to paint today, but warns buyers they are purchasing reproductions.

Perenyi remembers his former more exciting life longingly.

"I looked upon my activities as a contest of wits with world experts, and I enjoyed every moment of it," he says. "It was intoxicating."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

LAURA SULLIVAN, HOST:

It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Laura Sullivan. Next time you're admiring an old master painting at a museum or auction house, take a closer look. It may not be the work of a master artist but the work of a master con artist by the name of Ken Perenyi, complete with cracks and yellowing varnish and antique frame.

Perenyi says he sold more than 1,000 forgeries over 30 years. His ability is so impressive his work has passed inspection by experts worldwide, and it's made Perenyi millions. He lays it all out in his new book "Caveat Emptor: The Secret Life of an American Art Forger." His publisher says they have vetted the book, and it's all true.

Caveat emptor is Latin for let the buyer beware, probably sage advice for today's art enthusiasts.

KEN PERENYI: I have a rather large body of work that's all out there in the world somewhere hanging in galleries and collections and maybe museums, too, hard to say. But every so often, one surfaces, one pops up in a museum or a catalogue, something I haven't seen for 20 years or so.

(LAUGHTER)

SULLIVAN: These are forgeries that you have painted that are hanging in museums right now or at auction houses that are being sold as paintings from famous masters.

PERENYI: Correct. They were created and sold as originals in the style of a particular artist. In the beginning, I started out with some of the old masters, the Flemish and the Dutch paintings. I eventually was introduced to the 19th century school. And that's where my career as a forger really took off, and I started making a lot more money with the American paintings.

SULLIVAN: Do you feel bad about that at all?

PERENYI: No. Not at all. I take pride in my work. And I think it speaks for itself. I would find it difficult to feel bad about creating beautiful paintings.

SULLIVAN: But there are people out there who have spent a lot of money on these paintings believing them to be something that they are not. Do you think that you've cheated them?

PERENYI: No, not at all. I think - I believe I've always made a significant contribution to the world of art. And if anyone discover that a painting they have in their collection was in fact one of my creation, they could always bring it back to the auction house and get a refund. So I don't really feel any guilt in that area. Not at all.

SULLIVAN: How do you think Charles Bird King would feel knowing that he has spent a lifetime creating a body of work that he's proud of, and that there's somebody out there pretending to be him and making money from people, unsuspecting buyers, believing that they are purchasing his work?

PERENYI: Well, that's a very good question. I've thought about that, not only Charles Bird King, but James Buttersworth and JF Herring on the British side. And I'm convinced that if they were alive today, they would truly be thankful that someone, hundreds of years after they lived, has taken so much time and has been so dedicated to master their technique and be able to carry on with their work where they left off. So I feel that they would be more than happy to put their signature on any one of my paintings.

SULLIVAN: Is it a painstaking process to reproduce one of the masters?

PERENYI: A great deal goes into it. You have to understand the type of a support, that is, the canvas, the stretcher and so on that the artist originally painted on. You have to look at the crack patterns on his original works to see forensically what you have to match. Yes, there is a great deal that goes into it. But after the initial research is scoped out, then after that, the production of these paintings could go quite easily.

SULLIVAN: You have such an extraordinary talent. Your paintings are - they're impeccable, these recreations. Why don't you just paint your own work?

PERENYI: I intended to paint abstract impressionist paintings, but it just seemed that fate or events always conspired against me. Every time I was trying to put my collection together, one thing or another would happen that would cause me to have my plans disrupted. And I always had to fall back on forgery to survive. And it finally got to the point where I gave up in exasperation of putting my collection together and had to rely on forgery as a fulltime career. And I have to say, for me, it was very rewarding. But still to this day, I still work on my abstract impressionist collection.

SULLIVAN: At the end of the day, though, would you have preferred to have been known as a great artist in your own right?

(LAUGHTER)

PERENYI: Oh, that's a good question. Well, part of me wishes that maybe things were a little different. But I also have to say that my life as a forger has been very exciting. I looked upon my activities as a contest of wits with world experts, and I enjoyed every moment of it. It was intoxicating. So it's really hard for me to say what I would prefer.

SULLIVAN: I'm speaking with Ken Perenyi, author of the new book "Caveat Emptor." How did you go about getting these forgeries sold?

PERENYI: When I started out, it was basically a walk-in to a gallery or an antique shop and presenting a painting that I claimed I had inherited or found in a flea market and I wanted to sell it. But as years went on, and I became more professional, in a manner of speaking, I simply walked into the auction houses with the painting and presented it to their valuations counter, as they call it. And I always allowed the experts to tell me what I had.

SULLIVAN: You spent 10 years in a sort of cat-and-mouse game with the FBI. How did you get away with this for so long?

PERENYI: I was very careful on the artist I chose to imitate. I picked up on artists that were not fabulously well known like Picasso or, you know, Monet or something like that, artists that have been forged many times before. I was interested in painters that were coming up in the art world that were accelerating in price and becoming more and more known by the collecting public.

So I stayed under the radar by targeting these very fine artists, understanding their ability. And also, it was an area that experts would not expect fakes to show up in.

SULLIVAN: And right now, are you in any risk of being indicted?

PERENYI: No. I believe that risk is long over. The statute of limitations and the case went inactive in 2003.

SULLIVAN: You're still painting today.

PERENYI: Oh, yes.

SULLIVAN: What are you painting?

PERENYI: I spend my time always on a new collection of fakes, and I'm always perfecting them. I love exploring new areas.

SULLIVAN: But these are fakes that you're selling as fakes.

PERENYI: Indeed, yes. And I'm always developing my abstract impressionist collection. So I'm - I paint every day, and I find it just as thrilling now, as I did years ago.

SULLIVAN: That's Ken Perenyi, the author of the new book "Caveat Emptor: The Secret Life of an American Art Forger." Thanks so much for joining us, Ken.

PERENYI: Thank you. It's been a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.