Friday, August 31, 2012

Art Book review: "Caveat Emptor" by Ken Perenyi

The Extraordinary Tale of an American Art Forger
by Elissa Watters, guest blogger

"Caveat Emptor" by Ken Perenyi
Yes, Ken Perenyi may be egotistic at times, but doesn’t he have a right to be?  After all, he was able to imitate the styles of some of the most honored artists ever and sell his fakes, claiming them to be antiques, for over 30 years.  “Caveat Emptor” tells the tale of an American art forger who was able to trick some of the top art collectors, dealers and auction houses (Sotheby's and Christie's) of the time into believing that his works were the pieces of famous artists such as Calder, Buttersworth and Heade.  The extent of Ken Perenyi’s knowledge in wood panels and canvases, framing and varnishing coupled with his ability to analyze and imitate other artists’ styles, and his cunning sense of business in the art world are staggering.  Finally, Perenyi’s success at maneuvering an FBI investigation is impressive, albeit a little unsettling.  Read the book and see for yourself, but 30 years, millions of dollars and 312 pages later, Ken Perenyi is an impressive figure. 

Born and raised in New Jersey in the 1950s and 60s, Ken Perenyi’s early life was filled with hardship resulting in part from his lack of formal education, in part from those he befriended, and in part from his career choice.  While working as an amateur artist and restorer, Perenyi discovered his uncanny ability to imitate the styles of other artists.  At first, Perenyi turned to forgery as a quick money-maker in times of desperation, but this hobby later became a full-fledged career.  Perenyi’s early days were spent painting and dealing in New York.  Later, he moved his studio to Florida, shipping his works up to New York and, eventually, oversees to London.  After the FBI investigation, which failed to prove the details that were needed to ensure Perenyi’s arrest (read the book for details!), Perenyi retired from his career of forgery and focused solely on restoration (his side-business until then).  After the statute of limitations had expired, Perenyi decided to write the book “Caveat Emptor” detailing the ins and outs of his extraordinary life of art forgery.
There are numerous accusations against Perenyi; he tells his tale truthfully (and pridefully), admitting lie upon lie and immoral act upon immoral act, yet one cannot help but feel a sense of exhilaration every time he sells another of his forged paintings.  Is it because Perenyi’s struggles, as well as his successes, are acute and painful?  Or perhaps we appreciate Perenyi’s ingenuity and, because he harmed people financially who could “afford” it, in some ways we applaud his feat?  Whatever it is that makes the reader feel empathy for, as well as anger towards, Perenyi is the key to this awesome tale.  We, the readers, judge Perenyi.  Hundreds of forged paintings and an entire FBI investigation later, we judge him.  Yet in the end, as much as we want to blame Perenyi, we know the answer is in the title: Caveat Emptor.  Buyer Beware.

Mentioned in this article @sothebys @Christiesinc @amazon

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