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on October 10, 2012
Well into his career as an art forger, Ken Perenyi meets a reclusive, eccentric art collector living in Piermont, New York, in the Hudson Valley. Perenyi quotes Jimmy, the collector, as saying that art dealers "are a bunch of prostitutes. And their primary appreciation of a picture is its price tag." That serves as a leitmotif for Caveat Emptor, and indeed, the buyer should beware. Perenyi found his calling as an artist making fake paintings, first in the style of 17th century Dutch portraits, then moving into 19th century American and British art. In this entertaining book, he details his methods--and tells how he fell into the trade, mostly thanks to the greed of dealers--and buyers.
Caveat Emptor reads like a novel, starring a cast of characters that Donald E. Westlake would have loved: wise guy New Yorkers, crooked auction house dealers, leather clad enforcers, and even the legendary--or notorious, depending on your point of view--Roy Cohn. A longtime pal makes a habit of boosting not fancy cars but station wagons: they make hauling late-night loot easier. And then there's the artsy-fartsy Soho crowd: Perenyi glides smoothly between them all. There is as much life in the fast lane as art forgery here, but that's part of the charm, at least once the rather tiresome sixties are over with.
But it's the art forgery that were really here for, and Perenyi is happy to divulge his secrets: the statute of limitations has run out, and the FBI never got the goods on him. He started producing fakes just to see if he could, and then it became his living. He spills all the details: finding old canvases or boards to repaint, and appropriately aged wood panels (drawer bottoms from antique furniture are a good source), intently studying the styles of the original painters.
He is inadvertently helped along the way by many experts, such as an old world framer maker who clues him in on the past masters' preferred way to make gesso, the primer for a canvas, using rabbit skin glue. The hot Florida sun bakes his paintings dry, rubber balls bounced on the canvas create the right pattern of cracks; he even mimics the pattern of microscopic fly droppings that accumulate over the decades on old paintings.
The art galleries and auction houses are only too glad to sell his paintings, pretty much no questions asked. Perenyi repeatedly portrays their greed, and in one amusing scene, after unwittingly getting stiffed by Sotheby's in London, gets his revenge by engineering a situation where some Sotheby's workers could lose their jobs. "Let them go out an earn a honest living for once!" he says, seemingly unaware of the irony of his statement.
Perenyi never had formal art training of any sort, but obviously is a master of the craft. Now his fakes are collected as such--perhaps someone will come along and fake his fakes! In the end, despite plenty of money stashed away and a life of leisure in the offing, Perenyi keeps at it. "Painting pictures had totally consumed my life," he writes. "The more pictures I turned out, the better they became, and that just inspired me to paint more. I lived in a perpetual pursuit of another subject." After reading Caveat Emptor, we're glad he did.