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An Art Forger Tells All

Ken Perenyi made millions forging famous works of art. Now he tells all.

In an exhibition on forgeries at the Detroit Institute of Arts, a painting titled "A Female Saint", left, that once was attributed to Italian artist Sandro Botticelli is exhibited alongside "The Resurrected Christ," right, a Botticelli painting from around 1480. (AP)

In an exhibition on forgeries at the Detroit Institute of Arts, a painting titled “A Female Saint”, left, that once was attributed to Italian artist Sandro Botticelli is exhibited alongside “The Resurrected Christ,” right, a Botticelli painting from around 1480. (AP)

For most of us, high-tier art forgery is the stuff of movies and, almost, fairy tales. A master forger, moving among the rich and famous, cruising galleries and museums, gliding through glittering auction houses. Then going back to the studio to paint elegant fakes – forgeries – so fine they fool the masters. Make millions.

For Ken Perenyi, this was life, he says. The machinist’s son from Jersey with a gift for emulation. And an incredible story to tell.

This hour, On Point: the forger’s tale. Master art forger Ken Perenyi tells all – or something like it.

- Tom Ashbrook

Guests

Ken Perenyi, art forger and author of the new memoir “Caveat Emptor: The Secret Life of an American Art Forger.”

Henry DePhillips, art conservation scientist and art forgery specialist.

From Tom’s Reading List

The New York Times “Over the next few years, he says, the F.B.I. continued to keep a close watch on him at his bayside bungalow here, tracking his work and where it sold, and talking to his friends and associates. Though the authorities never charged him, the scrutiny pushed Mr. Perenyi to develop what he calls “a new business model”: openly selling his faked oils as the reproductions of the finest masters.”

The Huffington Post “The business of oil painting reproductions has been around for some time, and one might argue it’s not really hurting artists like Paul Cezanne or other painters who are no longer with us. Instead, it’s allowing art enthusiasts on a budget to admire a work of fine art — albeit a fake — in their own home. But for contemporary and emerging artists, it’s a drastically different story.”

Excerpt: “Caveat Emptor: The Secret Life of an American Art Forger”

Use the navigation bar at the bottom of this frame to reformat the excerpt to best suit your reading experience.

Gallery

Here are some forged paintings by our guest Ken Perenyi paired with the real paintings as well as a photo of Ken at work.

Playlist

“Sinnerman” by Nina Simone (from The Thomas Crown Affair Motion Picture Soundtrack)

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  • Shag_Wevera

    The amount of money spent on works of art is a great symbol of human excess.  Forgeries and counterfeits are a natural result of this excess.

    • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

       Excess?  These are among the greatest works of humanity.  That’s worth something, no?

      • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=512915642 Kerry Bart-raber

        and shouldn’t people have access to the poster if they like it?!

      • Shag_Wevera

        I totally agree with there intrinsic value to humanity.  People paying tens of millions for a painting is the excess I describe.

        • http://www.facebook.com/people/Mark-Forgy/100000804305015 Mark Forgy

          And what is the “intrinsic value” of a Jackson Pollack?

  • http://www.facebook.com/kyle.rose Kyle Rose

    It’s not clear to me how these are “forgeries”: the paired paintings don’t look like each other.

    • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_HUHWX4TIAZRFNFYCWUE43OZDUQ 7LeagueBoots

       They might not be showing his actual forgeries.

      • J__o__h__n

        Are they fake forgeries?

        • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_HUHWX4TIAZRFNFYCWUE43OZDUQ 7LeagueBoots

          Fauxgeries

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Joseph-Rice/100000693874282 Joseph Rice

      I haven’t checked the website yet, but from the samples here, it looks like he selected artists (such as Heade), who painted essentially variations on the same subject/theme.

  • jefe68

    The thing that gets me is how this man was able to fool the so called experts. I was looking at his web site and I have to say the Gainsborough is not even on the same level of paint handling let alone the drawing. Mind you I don’t think Mr. Perenyi was forging Gainsborough’ but it was something I noticed.

  • J__o__h__n

    The NY Times had a recent article about how art experts are now unwilling to judge if works are authentic or not to avoid being sued.  Judges are then put in the place of deciding if they are authentic. 

  • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

    The remake of The Thomas Crown Affair is a beautiful film, thanks in part to its soundtrack.

  • Spencer Elliott

    Just as cover-bands and tribute bands recreate music and receive sometimes large sums of money for their work, Ken deserves compensation for his research, attention to detail, and execution of skill.

    However, you’d be hard-pressed to find a tribute act that actually claimed to be the real band. Perhaps the problem is societal. Shouldn’t we value the work of someone so talented and skillful as Ken?

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Mark-Forgy/100000804305015 Mark Forgy

      I have to agree. The value in art should not derive from the price tag attached to it. As for the outraged moral absolutists in a snit over Perenyi, or any other art forger, they best look to the fact that there is no moral imperative in capitalism that condems greed. It is eulogized, its crusaders thought of as presidential material by many.

    • http://www.facebook.com/shirley.dephillips Shirley DePhillips

      No.

  • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

    It’s unfortunate that these skilled forgers can’t just produce works of their own and have those valued.  “Art” these days has to be abstract or similar to get the attention of the critics, but forgers are showing a demand for older styles.  Those styles aren’t out of date.

    • http://www.facebook.com/maria.meylikhova Maria Meylikhova

      No, art these days (and other days ) has to be good. And “good art” is subjective. However, there are some objective criteria and by those lights, apparently, his art did not or could not cut the mustard… Brings to mind the Vermeer forgeries that came to light after WWII. A very useful comparison.

  • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

    There is a thrill to show up “experts” as fools–see the dialogues of Plato for an old example.

    • Duras

      See Shakespeare for an Early Modern example.

      • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

        Yes, absolutely.  See Shakespeare regardless of the reason.

  • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

    Don’t art historians use documents from the period to confirm that a work is genuine?  Looking for the artist to have written a letter about the painting, for example, or a handbill from a showing at the time?

    • BHA_in_Vermont

       Perhaps, but as the guest (Tom, you REALLY need to get some better friends) said, many painters had more than one version of a ‘single’ painting. The fakes could make it through your ‘test’ as one of them.

    • J__o__h__n

      They should have encoded them with their DNA like Thomas Kinkade did.  It may be crap, but it is a genuine official copy. 

  • bogosity1

    The all-time best film with art forgery at the center of its plot is  “The American Friend” with Dennis Hopper and Bruno Ganz by New Wave German director Wim Wenders.

  • BHA_in_Vermont

    What an entire lack of morality.
    - It is OK to defraud people if they are rich?
    - It is OK to defraud people because the original (long dead) painters would be glad (so HE says) someone spent the time to copy their style and work?

    Geez.

    Glad I don’t have enough money to ‘invest’ in art.

    • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

       Not too far off the view of many commentors here with regard to the rich…

  • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

    Who actually wrote the book?

  • ChevSm

    I can’t wait to illegally download his book

  • KayJay12

    Awsome.  Sorry to say i don’t feel sorry for the people who buy a forgery.  Many reasons.  Anyway…

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=512915642 Kerry Bart-raber

    Ahh, very interesting- reminds me of “The Maiden Heist” film with Christopher Walken, Morgan Freeman & William Macy- museum guards who can’t stand to see their favorite art works be sent to a different museum. 
    And of course, when art students are learning, we study our  favorite artists and create work in their style

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=512915642 Kerry Bart-raber

    Oh, it makes the art world that much more tantalizing esp when trying to motivate students- talk about the shenanigans- speaking of which I didn’t think Gilbert Stuart finished too many paintings- because he was too busy running from the Law

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=691625356 Peter Van Erp

    Is a Damien Hirst rotting shark or a Jeffrey Koons plastic Cicciolina a “real” piece of art?  Are the people who purchase them any less defrauded than the purchasers of Mr. Perenyi’s work?  
    His “After Gilbert Stuart” looks more like the other portrait of Washington than the Gilbert Stuart in the Frick Collection.  The Frick Washington is one of a 130 or so copies of the original which Stuart and his daughters painted.  If it was painted by his daughters, and signed by Stuart, is it authentic? 

  • Pingback: Art in the News! 14th August 2012 « MSC Forsyth Center Galleries

  • Duras

    The fake Washington is austere and darker.  In the original, Washington is rosey and light is falling from above.  I wonder if Perenyi had in mind Washington the General as he copied the orginal.  Did today’s cultural imagination of Washington influence the him even while he was copying the original…?

  • Duras

    Obviously, this is a crime.  But is it so different than most marketing techinques?   And I’m certainly not a fan of marketers either.  But not many Americans know what “Authentic Italian Tomato Sauce,” yet every jar says so….  People are always trying to sell us nonessential products and trying to make it seem more valuable than it really is.  Yes, there is a difference between what Perenyi and marketers, but the degree doesn’t seem to be far off.

  • http://www.facebook.com/paul.dooner.3 Dooner Paul

    a thief is a thief..it doesn’t matter how much money x has …YOU have a narcissistic personality disorder….you should have been happy with your copies and sold them as reproductions…..!!!! now your talent is profoundly tarnished….

  • stacywillow

    Ken, you believe the artists you stold from would be flattered??  Really!?

    You said you did this as an homage to them one breath AFTER you spoke of what a rush it was for you to sit in a room and watch your paintings fool rooms full of people at auction. 

    You did this for money, and you did it for your ego.  You did this for sick and twisted kicks.  Period.  I’d have more respect for you if you were at least honest about that part.

  • Tyler Alderson

    I think the moral outrage here is misplaced. The only reason people were “defrauded” was because they weren’t paying for the art, they were paying for the name. His art is obviously of a high quality, and I’m sure many people would proudly display it prominently. But they’re outraged because they’re not paying for high-quality art, they’re paying for a name that they can impress with. If you’re willing to pay $100,000 for a painting, you should be paying $100,000 based on artistic and aesthetic values, not who signed the work.

    If you actually want good art, there are thousands of brilliant artists who make fractions of what even one name painting would sell for, yet make amazing works of art. Find them; don’t spend your money on an impressive scribble in the corner.

    • jefe68

      Boy are you wrong. People are outraged because this crook flim·flammed them.

      • Tyler Alderson

         How did he flim-flam them? They wanted art, he made it, they bought it. The only thing that he deceived them about was who made the piece. So if they’re put out, it has to be because they were paying for the name.

        • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100001038184747 Ashlee Casey

          So it’s ok if you’re buying a Mercedes and end up with a Honda?  If someone wants to pay for a painting with a specific artists name then so be it.  Why condone a con artist and a crook?

          • Tyler Alderson

             Look, if I’m buying a car I want a good car. If the Honda is a crappy car and I thought I was getting a nice Mercedes, then I’d be ticked off. But It wouldn’t be because I didn’t get the right make, it would be because I got a worse car. Are some makes more consistently better quality than others? Sure. Do you see more 200,000 mile Toyotas on the road than 200,000 mile Jaguars “worth” three times as much? Yes. So I’d be ticked off if someone sold me a crappy Jaguar passed off as a reliable Corolla, and it would have nothing to do with the hood ornament.

          • rmarius2000

            Tyler,

            I think you’re missing the point. People have a right to get what they paid for. They paid for something that they thought was genuine. It wasn’t. When they try to resell what they paid a great deal of money for, someone may discover that it’s not what they thought. Some of these pieces of art are used as investments. Would you feel the same way if you someone cashed your check with counterfeit money? This guy is about inflating his ego and what he committed was a crime. He deceived people. It doesn’t matter why they bought the art (for investment, prestige, etc.). They didn’t get what they paid for. Your reasoning doesn’t really make any sense. 

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Mark-Forgy/100000804305015 Mark Forgy

      I think your response to the phoniness of the art market is acurate. It opens the door to art fakers or forgers, and if their work passes as originals, it’s beautiful. Once outed as a fake, it becomes ugly. Why? (Well, I know why, but it’s another story.)

  • DowntownLizzieBrown

    I guess what bothered me the most was his arrogance and pride. The artists would be flattered? Hmmm. I think the cover band example someone gave was apt. In CVS, they sell knock-off fragrances called “An Impression of Eternity” or “A Whiff of Obsession” (I made that one up.) To be ethical, wouldn’t he have to sell his work as “inspired by”?

  • Allison Fink

    My family has always debated the difference between craft and art.  My opinion is that craft is the skilled ability to do something but art is the vision to make it new.  Art forgery is a craft.  What would it take for an art forger to become an artist?  Would they be brave enough?

  • yogarus1

    I am appalled that you, Tom, and NPR are glorifying a crook like this forger. He says the artists he copies would be flattered at how he studied them.  Those who prey on victims study them; murderers also talk of the thrill and excitement he speaks of. Many who break the law are skilled; when the stakes are high, it seems it’s ok. Write a book, get on a radio show. I’m really disappointed in this show.

    • jefe68

      This man was all about ego. His work is not that good if you spend time looking at it. The Heade’ he does are OK but they are just decent copies. This is more of a tale of a crook who had some talent that he wasted on fooling dealers and the people with more money than sense.

      This guy got away with it, and now he writes a book and gets on shows to promote it and inflate his swell head even more.

      Anyone, and I mean anyone who says that the artist he copied would be flattered is really telling the world they are egomaniacs. Studied the masters to learn and to become a decent painter is a lot different than becoming a forger.

      • Guest

        Hi Jefe.  Just give me a shout if you get this.  I wanted to make a comment to you, and, I guess for decorum’s sake, I wanted it to fly under the radar, so I picked an old page.

        You’ve commented to me recently that I have a lot of patience and questioned me as to why I bother responding to some comments.  I guess in some ways I do have a lot of patience, even for what I would consider to be illogical views, and in part there is just a part of me that feels that somebody has to give pushback against what I would consider to be either misconceptions, distortions and outright lies.  Some days I feel like that needs to be me.

        At first I tried not to be combative, and I was really trying to feel out people’s positions, but some of mine have definitely hardened over time as I’ve seen some of the same people posting the same bad or selective numbers, distortions, lies, conspiracy theories, etc.  I try my best to be reasonable, although I don’t know how that is possible with some of those who posted on the secession page.  What seems to me to be the most troubling are those who just seem to be in denial of objective reality.  The poll deniers were especially annoying to me, and I didn’t rub it in when the polls turned out to be right, but it was hard to lay off.

        At any rate, I just wanted to say that to you, so hopefully this finds its way to some inbox of yours.

  • http://profiles.google.com/phyllis.craine Phyllis Craine

    Money changes everything

  • http://www.facebook.com/moodartist Dale Alan Hammond

    Being an artist myself the thing I get (got) from this story is buyer beware. Never assume anything. Today art is all about genuine papers to prove authenticity. Provenance and accurate records of ownership are all the rage. Unlearned investors who digress from this common sense approach risk the loss of a lot of money, and what’s maybe even worse, they’re made into stupid suckers and forgers feed on this mental neutral kind of fish. On the other hand, in some ways, maybe it’s fitting they get ripped. Maybe it’s the art gods getting revenge.

  • http://www.facebook.com/shirley.dephillips Shirley DePhillips

    In response to Spenser Elliott:  “Shouldn’t we value the work of someone so talented and skillful as Ken?”

    No. 

  • Spencer Doidge

    I would buy a painting to look at it, not to sell it. It doesn’t matter to me who painted the painting. I am attracted to the intrinsic beauty of the image. When Gertrude Stein bought a lot of her paintings, the artists were nobodies. I like to think that she bought them because she liked them.

    The guest creates images, some I would buy if I had the money, and some I would have to be paid to haul away. If he did a great forgery of the Velasquez painting of a guy with a beard that I saw in the collection of a Mr. Rau, I would dig deep to find the money. If he tried to sell me the genuine original Mona Lisa, even if I could afford it, I’d turn him down because I don’t especially like it.

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