Book Review: Caveat Emptor

This is an art forger’s first hand account of forging artwork to take care of himself. The book begins in New York, and the author Ken Perenyi guides the reader into the beginnings of his life as an art forger. He talks of his young life as a hardcore partyer in the 1950’s and 60’s spending long hours away from home dropping acid, smoking pot, and spending time with ruffians and women. However, it is this environment that introduces him to the forgeries he is destined to create.

It’s a book in Strand’s bookstore that introduces him to the art forger Van Meegeren. Van Meegeren was an art forger during World War II who sold fake Vermeers to the Nazis. After the war, he was charged as a traitor.  Because of this allegation, he confessed that they were all forgeries despite the skepticism of the court. It was then, in his prison cell, that he reproduced a Vermeer and convinced authorities.

Needing money, Mr. Perenyi found this story inspiring. He began to forge old ‘Dutch’ paintings and found himself making quick money. He still didn’t think he would make this a serious way to make money. So, taking his work to a conservator, he was hired on the spot and began to learn the ins and outs of restoring old paintings. He then meets an old frame-maker who teaches him how to make authentic gesso for his forgeries.

Everything seems to work out this way for Mr. Perenyi. After experiencing times of great fun, he is then led to times of great grief. However, he is always led to someone that helps him progress on this journey of faking old art masterpieces seemingly, even, without looking for these individuals.  He meets famous lawyers, members of the mafia, famous models, and rich art collectors all of whom help him (if even inadvertently) along his path to becoming a full-time forger.

He creates a vast fortune working as an art restorer and forger and isn’t questioned by the FBI until 1998. However, the FBI doesn’t indict him.

The story is a great one; Mr. Perenyi moves from intense moments in his life that have little to do with art to describing the scientific process of creating certain forgeries. He tells all of the story in a very personable way, in a way that makes one want to sit and talk to him personally. I highly recommend it as part of any artist’s or art historian’s library. However, while reading, I would think to myself: “What if he’s forging this story itself?” I guess therein lies the meaning of caveat emptor.

The New York Times conducts an interview with Mr. Perenyi here.

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