Caveat Emptor: The Secret Life of an American Art Forger by Ken Perenyi

This is another one of those impulse “daily deal” purchases. With advertising copy like this—

The astonishing true story of America’s most accomplished art forger: a kid from New Jersey who became a master, fooling experts and eluding the FBI for thirty years.

—a New Jersey connection*, and a decent string of 4- and 5-star Amazon reviews, what’s not to like?

More than I expected, actually

In the interests of being marginally courteous, let me start off with some of the parts I did enjoy about this book. Perenyi offers an incredible amount of technical detail about his art forgery processes, and I can’t deny that this “behind the curtains” view was truly fascinating. He details the many forensic tricks and techniques he used to give a sense of historicity to his materials, so that his artworks seemed appropriately aged to match their supposed provenance. He also provides some art-analysis insights as he describes the ways he would survey a painter’s oeuvre to determine the core elements—composition, color palette, materials, size, etc.—then synthesizing and extrapolating on that understanding to invent new artworks “by” such-and-such a painter.

The technical prowess exhibited in his methods is significant on its own, but then the artistic leap Perenyi was able to make is something else entirely. His forgeries were not the simple copying-a-famous-painting style of forgery. Instead, he built on his understanding of different artists’ styles to create brand-new works that credibly could have been “lost works” by these guys.

So I can’t deny feeling a certain level of being objectively impressed by the level of skill and talent Perenyi demonstrated through this long career as art forger.

Ultimately, though, he’s just such a douche-canoe.

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There’s not even an ounce of self-awareness or introspection about why he chose the path he did. As far as I can tell, teenage Perenyi had the good (or ill?) fortune to meet a couple denizens from the NYC/Warhol art scene: they turned him onto drugs and sex, and he just continued drifting down whatever path would make him the largest amount of easy money. Did this man ever reach a higher level of emotional maturity? Not that this book evidences.

I can almost forgive young 1970’s-era Ken in thinking that Roy Cohn was a cool bigshot kinda guy,** when the famous lawyer/sleazebag helped Ken maintain his residence at the Ferguson Residential Club when it was about to be taken over and turned into a drug rehab. But writing with almost 40 years’ historical distance on that connection, and after your very own supposed best friend has died of AIDS, to not have any kind of retrospective or historical perspective on Cohn? Egads.

As far as I can tell, Perenyi wants to cast himself as a swashbuckling Robin Hood type. He doesn’t show an ounce of regret for his criminal past, instead seeming very proud of himself for pulling a fast one on all these rich people and the institutions of the art auction houses. But if you want to be Robin Hood, you needs a bit of charisma and some charitable purpose to what you’re “stealing from the rich.”

This book, alas, provides little more than vacuous prose and the reminiscences of someone who fleeced the wealthy simply to feed his own habit for prime rib and Louis Vuitton.

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* Mendham Minutemen, represent!

** Key word: Almost.

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Image credit: Photo taken by the author, subject to a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International license.

2 thoughts on “Caveat Emptor: The Secret Life of an American Art Forger by Ken Perenyi

  1. Pingback: January Recap – Self-Love: It's Just Another Lifestyle Change

  2. Pingback: Off to Be the Wizard by Scott Meyer – Self-Love: It's Just Another Lifestyle Change

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