The Secret Life of an American Art Forger
Pegasus Books, 2012
From the dust jacket: “Ten years ago, an FBI investigation in conjunction with the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the southern District of New York was about to expose a scandal in the art world that would have headlined the front pages in New York and London. After a trail of fake paintings of astonishing quality led federal agents through a labyrinth of art dealers, renowned experts, and major auction houses, the investigation inexplicably ended, despite the abundance of evidence collected. The case was closed and the FBI file was marked “exempt from public disclosure.”
“Now that the statute of limitations on these crimes has expired and the case appears hermetically sealed shut by the FBI, this book, Caveat Emptor, is Ken Perenyi’s confession. It is the story, in detail, of how he pulled it all off.
“…Caveat Emptor is unique in that it is the first book by and about America’s most talented art forger. And unlike other forgers, Perenyi produced no paper trail, no fake provenance whatsoever; he let the paintings speak for themselves. And that they did, routinely mesmerizing experts in mere seconds.”
This is one of those books that if you read it as fiction or saw it as a movie, you would say ‘that can’t ever happen’. You know the phrase, “The truth is stranger than fiction”? Well, there was never any more truer statement as can be said about this book and about the life its author led (and may still lead). Quite simply, it blew my mind.
Not only is the author incredibly talented – I would say genius/savant level talent – but instinctively aware of what not to do so he doesn’t get caught. Of course, I was truly bothered – no, appalled is a better word – by his lack of basic moral values regarding theft and lying. There was some outright theft but it was more disturbing to me that he spent almost his entire early career lying by omission. He copied great works of art, signed the artist’s name to it but when he offered it for sale – whether to an auction house or a private seller/dealer, he walked up to the line but never crossed it – meaning, he never actually said the painting was by the artist or that he had painted it, just that he had ‘found’ it. It’s a slippery slope he was on and by a measure grace from somewhere he was incredibly successful at it.
The book is very readable – I don’t know if the author is as talented in writing as he is in painting or if he had a ghost writer – but I couldn’t put the book down. He takes the reader through a brief history of the Psychedelic Sixties, the Disco Seventies, the Over Indulgent Eighties, and all the way to the early 2000’s. Forging art was his life and, according to his website (kenperenyi.com) it still is, only he’s upfront with the forgery instead of keeping it hidden. Fascinating, truly fascinating. If you like books about interesting people, read this one. You won’t be disappointed.
Rating: 4 out of 5 paws because I couldn’t put it down, I just read straight through to the end.