Lance Charnes's Reviews > Caveat Emptor: The Secret Life of an American Art Forger

Caveat Emptor by Ken Perenyi
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really liked it
bookshelves: nonfiction-art-culture, nonfiction-crime-espionage, reviewed
Recommended for: readers who like their true crime stories torn from People magazine back issues

Ken Penenyi is what This American Life would call an "American original." A borderline juvenile delinquent from the wrong side of the Hudson, he stumbled across art and discovered he had a knack for dissecting and duplicating the styles of other artists. With the right sponsors, he managed to mix it up with the New York City boho art and fashion scene of the 1970s and 1980s. This naturally led to a career as perhaps one of the most prolific (and successful) art forgers in American history. And he never got caught.

Caveat Emptor is his story.

Actually, two stories. The first is a record of a short, now bygone period in Manhattan's cultural cauldron during which a punk Jersey kid could rub elbows with name-brand mobsters, addicts, politicians, artists, fixers (Roy Cohn) and the glitterati (Warhol, Halston) with some measure of belonging, when the scene was changing so fast that the very rich hadn't yet been able to buy all of it. The second is the chronicle of the development of an art expert, because in order to make the successful forgeries he cranked out by the hundreds, Perenyi had to become an expert in the style, materials and methods of a number of semi-obscure 18th- and 19th-century artists.

I grew up when Andy Warhol, Bianca Jagger, and Studio 54 were newspaper staples, so that part was mostly old news to me. It's the second story that I found most interesting. The author goes into some detail about how he studied the artists he copied, how he experimented to find the best ways to duplicate old-school painting techniques or the effects of aging, and how to defeat the industry's standard tests to determine authenticity. The last book that gave me so much detail about the forger's craft was a novel (Shapiro's The Art Forger ).

It's of course self-serving, but Caveat Emptor makes clear that the author wasn't waging a lone guerrilla war against the art world -- he had plenty of help. The legions of dealers and auction houses who bought his forgeries without doing their due diligence or even asking about provenance, then selling them as originals at huge markups, were just as culpable. Some dealers bought the author's "antique" paintings even though they knew full well Perenyi was the artist. The auction houses hid behind artfully worded disclaimers (the majors come off especially badly) and an unearned veneer of probity while whipping the art market into a froth. Growing sensitivity to the problem of looted art has curtailed some of the worst retail practices in the past decade, making it unlikely another forger will be able to prosper the way Perenyi did.

Read Caveat Emptor for the social history, or read it for its discussion of the art forger's craft. Perenyi is an artist, not a writer; his prose is simple and straightforward, not that his stories need a lot of verbal pyrotechnics. Yes, he's a criminal (although just how many of his exploits were actually illegal is a bit of a gray area) and thoroughly unrepentant; if he wasn't, we wouldn't be reading about him. He makes his forging career sound like a romp. Don't expect this book to provide moral uplift or redemption and you won't be disappointed.
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Reading Progress

February 21, 2014 – Shelved
October 5, 2015 – Started Reading
October 12, 2015 – Finished Reading

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