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Caveat Emptor - The Secret Life of an American Art Forger


Just finished reading this great romp through the art market for forgeries over the last fifty years or so.
Highly recommended.

Find out how to create the different cracking patterns in paintings.
Source period wood panels.
How to authentically reline paintings.
Colour varnish.
Age varnish to thwart the UV inspection.
Create permanent or temporary fly spots.


How much is "America's first and only great art forger," as the jacket copy describes the author, willing to reveal? Quite a lot, it seems. Perenyi, a graduate of a New Jersey technical school and a Vietnam draft dodger, fell in with a band of artistic New Yorkers and began imitating long-gone masters such as James E. Buttersworth and Martin Johnson Heade. The trick, he learned, was the peripheral details: the materials to which the canvas was fixed, the frame, a faux-aged stain. Perenyi took his canvases to New York antiques shops and specialty galleries, told a tale about a deceased uncle with treasures in his attic, and, more often than not, sold his wares. Some of his paintings reached the upper echelons of the art world and were brokered or bought by famous auction houses.

"I never told them the paintings were for real," Perenyi said to his lawyers in the 1990s, when he found himself at the center of an FBI investigation. "It wasn't my fault that Christie's, Phillips, Sotheby's and Bonhams sold them." The investigation abruptly ended (the book never makes clear precisely what happened, and the FBI file was marked "exempt from public disclosure," which may explain the absence of news related to the matter). There are, of course, many morally abhorrent moments in this story but it's hard not to like this surprisingly entertaining tale of the art world's shady side. Perenyi is culpable, but he may have had some help from the dealers and auction houses that looked the other way to make a buck.

A fabulous tale of impossible events. While my encounter with Ken Perenyi was fleeting, I long suspected he would claim his place in the dark arts of illustration and the fun of the chase. Enjoy the ride.--Richard Neville

An extraordinary memoir is to reveal how a gifted artist managed to forge his way to riches by conning high-profile auctioneers, dealers and collectors over four decades.

As Perenyi's exploits grow in value and range, the threat of being caught rises and the FBI draws near.

Perenyi illustrates how he became America's top art forger....Readers will be captivated as they follow the development of this remarkable talent over a 40-year career.

About the Author

Born in 1949 in Hoboken, New Jersey, Ken Perenyi is a self-taught artist who painted his first pictures during the Summer of Love in 1967, having discovered an uncanny ability to intuitively grasp the aesthetic and technical aspects of the Old Masters. A series of fateful events resulted in what was to become a thirty-year career as a professional art forger. Today he operates his own studio in Madeira Beach, Florida.




  • edited July 2020
    I read this book some years ago and was struck with how important it was for the fake "old art" to LOOK old.  This guy spent time locating material that looked right . . . old stretchers, old canvas and added dings, scrapes and scratches.  It was as though the art was almost secondary.  If all the parts and pieces looked okay, it must be authentic.

    I've read several books on this subject and in each case, it seemed that if all the surrounding parts looked right, then it was assumed to be the original work.  One guy used cheap, acrylic house paint to forge old works of art.  If you're going to be a forger, get your parts and pieces right and you may well succeed.
  • Broker12

    Authentic looking supports will only get you so far. When it comes to the top echelons there are experts for almost every notable artist, who focus on stylistic parameters such as brush stroke qualities and habitual elements.

    Most forgers fly under the radar of these people by doing small pieces, drawings or signed studies.
    But I am regularly astonished how often simple fakes earn top dollar.


  • edited July 2020
    Thanks for the recommendation Denis, I shall hunt down a copy.

    A few years back a read Shaun Greenhalgh`s book A Forger`s Tale. A British artist and former art forger. Over a seventeen-year period, between 1989 and 2006, he produced a large number of forgeries.

    Created hundreds of masterful forgeries of paintings, sculptures, and artifacts in the style of Ancient Egyptian craftsmen, Renaissance masters, Impressionist greats, and everything in between.

    He would make excellent stuff in his shed, fooled the British Museum (as well as many others. with `Armana Princes`.

    One lovely drawing of a young woman, thought to be by Da Vinci , was by Greenhaigh.

    A laugh out loud moment for me in his book when he referred to this he said something along the lines of it being based on the girl at the checkout in the supermarket.

    Also a very good read.

  • I was going to buy a book on this subject but I found out the whole thing was plagiarized. Thanks for the post Denis.
  • Maybe I should move my studio into my shed? 😀
  • edited July 2020
    I think becoming really good at forgeries would in some ways be harder than becoming a really good original painter. You would need to really study the technique, materials and style of every artist you want to forge, acquire the technical expertise in actual painting and find old stretchers, frames etc.  And then you'd have to try to make the work look old with craquelure, dust, scratches and so on. Sounds like too much hard work. And then there's the high risk of getting caught. If you can make a good copy of a Monet or a Rembrandt you could probably produce reasonable originals of your own. But they wouldn't fetch the prices of paintings by famous artists and I guess the big money is the attraction. Still, a lot of hard study and work would be required to pull it off. So, no, GTO, I'd leave the shed for tools and continue painting in the studio. I think you're probably more artist than crook.  :)
  • edited July 2020
    You're right . . . forging art is very hard work.  The paint used can trip up a forger . . . using a paint not available in the time the original was done is a give-away.
    I recently watched several videos about a German forger who slipped into the niche left by the destruction of art during Hitler's time (some artists, too).  This forger was quite original.  Since records showed that most of the real artist's works had been lost or destroyed, he painted what he thought would pass as "recently discovered work" by this artist, and they sold like proverbial hotcakes.  Since they were billed an "not known" in the first place, the artist had the luxury of making up something that looked like the dead artist's hand.  In one of his video interviews, he flipped through a couple of catalogs and pointed out several paintings that were really his.  I think that in addition to the money the forger gets, he gets to laugh quietly at having fooled them all.
    I also recall reading about a forger who became disgusted and angry because his original work was rebuffed and turned down by gallery after gallery so he went to work turning out fakes by slightly less well known artists.  They ended up in galleries and auction houses for which he earned both the money and a good laugh.
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