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The Truth, Maybe, About a Forger's Life



Rob Hardy


You might remember the slogan "Don't buy books from crooks." It was directed against Nixon's post-Watergate memoirs, and whether that was good advice then, it would be bad advice if it were to be applied to the memoir of art forger and scoundrel Ken Perenyi, Caveat Emptor: The Secret Life of an American Art Forger (Pegasus Books). If you believe what Perenyi writes here, he has completely reformed, and is now only making paintings that strongly resemble the works of previous masters but he is not representing them, as he used to do, as historic paintings. He has enormous skill in making his imitations, and those and his work in restoring old paintings ought to get him by from now on. However, given his own description of his life, he has not resisted the temptation to go back to forgery in the past and it would not be at all surprising if he returned to it in the future. He will have to be even more circumspect; his book throws light on his activities and the mechanics of his trade. If it is a confession, it is one without remorse; Perenyi thinks of himself as extending the careers of the painters he has copied, making paintings they would be proud to sign if they were still around. Refuse to buy the book by this crook, though, and you'd miss a rollicking good story from a genuine American artist of fakes. 




Perenyi was from New Jersey, the son of a machinist. In high school in the sixties he was a less-than-mediocre student who did not show any particular aptitude for art, although he got in trouble for drawing pictures instead of paying attention. He passed tests by cheating along with like-minded classmates. When he graduated, he admits he was good for nothing. He dodged the draft by pretending to be mentally ill, and he restored classic cars for some sort of an income. He chanced upon a mansion near the Palisades where dwelled the psychedelic artist and photographer Tom Daly. There may have been a cloud of marijuana smoke all though the mansion, not to mention other drugs, but it was where he got an introduction to studio art. Daly taught him the basics of painting and, as teachers have done for centuries, encouraged him to copy masters of the past to learn about technique. 




It was the making of him. "The more I studied paintings, whether in Tom's books or at the museums, the more I understood how they were painted. It was if they were breaking down into their simplest elements right before my eyes." When it came time to pick up brushes and paint, he copied a Rembrandt "with a genuine understanding of color, tone, and texture, as though I had always understood how to handle paint and brushes." This is as clear an explanation as anyone can get, I suppose, to the ineffable nature of genius. Perenyi was simply brilliant at copying paintings, and was able to do it without need to work on his inborn skills. He never says much about any art produced in his own style, and originally he wanted to be something more than an imitator of other people's work, remembering of his early years, "I was still a long way from regarding forgery as a career; at this point I viewed it as something to temporarily keep me going."  




Perenyi was brilliant with brushes and paint, but painting in the style of past masters is not all that a skillful forger is called upon to do. In the early 1970s, he got a job in Manhattan in a studio that restored paintings, and he learned how to make the restorations look like the real thing. He thereby became skilled at how to make new paintings look old, not just by style but by the different sorts of patina they might acquire. Perenyi gives many details about this sort of work, and he seems to have been as clever with his solvents and epoxies as he was with his brushes and paints. He discusses the glue binder used in the ground layer of a painting, and how he could use it to simulate age cracks. There is a quick and handy test that evaluators use to see if a painting is old by checking to see if its varnish properly glows under UV light. Indeed, some appraisers carry a UV flashlight around with them. When Perenyi learned that he could use solvents to collect old varnish from paintings, he simply stored up what he collected, and then painted it upon a picture he wanted to glow for any appraiser. He even became adept at making fly specks... "by mixing up some epoxy glue with an amber-colored powered pigment, dipping the end of a pin in the glue, and then touching the surface of the painting with the pinpoint covered with the glue. The result was a small elevated globule virtually indistinguishable from the real thing." Another important part of a painting is the frame around it; the best ones are genuine frames from the period that the painting is supposed to come from, and they add immensely to the authenticity of the work.  




Perenyi started selling his paintings to obscure antique dealers, and eventually was selling them via the great auction houses like Christie's, Phillips, and Sotheby's. When he writes, "Auction houses are notoriously devious institutions and should never be trusted," it might be the pot calling the kettle black and it might be that it takes one to know one. However, Perenyi used the blanket disclaimers of the auction houses as a handy cover, and it is revealing that the houses deny any responsibility about authenticity or attribution. His greatest financial victory was a picture of flowers and hummingbirds in the style of a master of those subjects, Martin Johnson Heade, which went for $717,500. This was an anomaly; he would more typically sell to individuals paintings for around a thousand dollars, and then with chagrin would see the paintings show up on the auction block for ten times more. 




This is where he got into trouble as a victim of his own success. He had some shady accomplices who would pick up a stack of paintings and leave envelopes full of thousands of dollars in cash, and he didn't know where the pictures were headed. "As more and more of my paintings suddenly started turning up in New York, suspicion soon turned to rumors of fake Buttersworths, Petos, Heades, Kings, Walkers, and Jacobsens being 'all over the place.'" Perenyi found himself in the middle of an FBI investigation complete with phone taps. It is not at all clear where the investigation went, and the case file has been marked mysteriously as "exempt from public disclosure." Perenyi says that while he may have lied when he told potential buyers that a particular painting was from a garage sale, or his uncle's estate, and so on, he never said the paintings were authentic, and it wasn't his fault that the auction houses sold them (often complete with provenance, which is one of the things he did not try to fake) as genuine. The statute of limitations is long over, and so he can tell his story. 




His conclusion is morally ambiguous. If you believe Perenyi (and why should you?), the money was very important, but even better was the love of his work. "Indeed, I had trouble falling asleep at night in anticipation of starting another painting in the morning." He is inspired by admiration of the work of the artists he copies; seeing an original, he "knew at once that I wanted to paint one just like it." A secondary pleasure is his love of putting one over on people who should know better, "the addictive thrill of fooling the experts." That's a pleasure that readers can enjoy, too, in this entertaining memoir from an American original.  




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