Forgeries or Faux Masterpieces? – Art Forger sells his work as “copies”

Posted July 19th, 2012 under Books, Forgery

For nearly three decades Ken Perenyi made a small fortune forging works by popular 18th- and 19th-century artists like Martin Johnson Heade, Gilbert Stuart and Charles Bird King. Then in 1998, Mr. Perenyi says, two F.B.I. agents showed up on his doorstep, curious about a couple of paintings sold at Christie’s and Sotheby’s, ostensibly by the maritime artist James E. Buttersworth but actually his own meticulous creations.

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.

Now they are bought by Palm Beach decorators, antiques dealers, professionals, business executives and others who want the look of cultured gentility without the price tag.

“I realized the life I knew and loved was over,” he said of his career as a con man. Whereas one Perenyi forgery fetched more than $700,000 at auction, now he sells a nearly identical work for as little as $5,000. They are the art-world equivalent of a three-carat cubic zirconia that can be flaunted as a Tiffany diamond.

Are they sold as authentic by the people who buy them?

“During the first few years of trying to market and sell my paintings legitimately, I couldn’t say where they went or what people did with them,” Mr. Perenyi, 63, said in an interview at his home. Behind him hung three fake Buttersworths, similar to the yachts that first attracted the F.B.I.’s notice. “Today I have an established clientele, and I only sell to people I know.”

Though many businesses sell fine-art reproductions, few can match Mr. Perenyi’s craftsmanship — or his checkered past.

His forgeries, he says, financed an extravagant lifestyle that included European trips, exclusive restaurants, Versace couture and “total freedom.” He says they brought him into contact with mob enforcers, the lawyer Roy Cohn and Andy Warhol, who, he says, bought one of his forgeries, a John F. Peto.

He gives details of his exploits in a forthcoming memoir, “Caveat Emptor: the Secret Life of an American Art Forger” (Pegasus Books), which has been optioned by RKO Pictures. ”

Read on at The New York Times

Image by Edward Linsmier for The New York Times