Ken Perenyi isn't exactly sure how many forged paintings he made and sold over more than three decades: "I can say with confidence, as a conservative estimate, at least a thousand."
Some of those he sold for a few hundred dollars, others for much more. Sometimes he was painting and selling so many at once that he had to use a bulletin board covered with photos to keep them straight.
In 1994, he sold one of his forgeries — a painting of hummingbirds and passionflowers based on 19th century American painter Martin Johnson Heade's The Gems of Brazil series — at Sotheby's in New York for $717,500.
A painting very similar to that one, which Perenyi calls by the nickname "Fat Boy," hangs over the mantel in his minimalist cottage on the quiet side of Madeira Beach. He bought the house, which serves as his home and studio, in 1978.
Taking his painting off the wall, he waves a hand over its aged-looking back — cracked and darkened wood, stained and patched canvas, all of it meticulously created by him to fool expert art appraisers' eyes — and says, "Look at that. Isn't that beautiful?"
How Perenyi, 63, learned to imitate an astonishing range of painters so well that he duped art dealers and other experts across the United States and Europe — and how he emerged unscathed (or at least unindicted) from a five-year investigation by the FBI — are the subjects of his new memoir, Caveat Emptor: The Secret Life of an American Art Forger.
It's a startling, entertaining tale, told with brio and peppered with bold-face names, and it's already been optioned for film by director Ron Howard.
That title, of course, is Latin for "Buyer beware."
Perenyi grew up in Palisades Park, N.J., in a working-class family. He was an indifferent student who didn't demonstrate any artistic talent until, as a teen, he started hanging around a down-at-the-heels estate that locals called the Castle. There he became friends with an intoxicating crowd of artists (and art thieves) who would turn Perenyi on to art and encourage the remarkable aptitude for it he discovered he had.
He set out to be an artist, not a forger. But he learned to paint the old-fashioned way, by copying the masters. He also worked as an art conservator, learning how to restore paintings — and how to recognize the subtlest signs of aging, like the fine web of cracks on a painting's surface.
He was eager to create original art, working in abstract expressionist and conceptual styles, and happily living hand-to-mouth in Manhattan in the swinging 1960s and '70s. But he had another passion: restoring vintage cars.
"My downfall was that Bentley," he says.
The 1936 Bentley Sports Saloon was costing him a small fortune in repairs, and one day a friend showed him a book about Han van Meegeren, a Dutch art forger successful in the decades between the world wars. "He said, 'That guy knew how to make money.' "
Soon Perenyi was studying 16th century Flemish portraits in museums, then copying them on wood panels taken from the drawers of antique dressers. The third "Dutch painting" he painted and aged, using techniques he developed himself, got him $800 from an Upper East Side gallery owner, no questions asked. The Bentley was repaired — and a career was born.
For a decade or so, Perenyi says, forging paintings was an emergency measure, something he resorted to when he ran short of money. He sold his "Dutch" portraits to small galleries, decorators, collectors, friends and "dealers of dubious repute." (He also once sold a forged painting to Andy Warhol — after Warhol ran it by "his expert.")
"I didn't consider forgery a career until I met Jimmy Ricau," Perenyi says. "He was the true turning point."
Ricau was a wealthy and eccentric collector of art and antiques who had never been a forger, or even a painter, Perenyi says, but he taught the younger man how to be one. "This just gave him a new charge in life. He saw how fine my hand was," Perenyi says. "And he was just a devilish old man."
Guided by Ricau's love for American art, Perenyi began specializing in forging works by "recently rediscovered" 19th century American artists — and selling them like hotcakes.
Perenyi says he never tried to create forged documents to validate a painting or his ownership of it. "My MO was just to take it in (to a dealer) and say, 'You tell me what it is.' " He once took a fake Heade painting to Christie's auction house in London and told them he had bought it at a "boot sale," the British equivalent of a flea market, and didn't even know who had painted it. The painting garnered newspaper headlines — and $96,000.
The FBI first came sniffing around in about 1980, when collectors who had bought Perenyi's works began reselling them. So many paintings by those recently rediscovered artists appeared on the market it raised suspicions, and Perenyi moved to England and swore off forgery.
Temporarily, that is. Not only was he "addicted to the thrill of matching wits with the experts," he had also grown used to the high life of fine clothes, good restaurants and posh quarters. "Putting $10,000 a month on my American Express card was routine," he says. Soon he was studying British sporting paintings and other new opportunities.
He was also studying the catalogs of the big auction houses, such as Sotheby's and Christie's. What he discovered in the fine print, he writes in Caveat Emptor, was:
"A) Virtually nothing sold here was guaranteed to be what it claimed to be,
"B) Neither the auction house nor the seller assumed any responsibility whatsoever,
"C) Even if a buyer discovered a painting to be an outright fake, all he could do was ask for a refund.
"I came to the conclusion that this was an engraved invitation to do business."
And do business he did, including that $717,500 Heade he sold in 1994. But the FBI came after him again, more aggressively this time under the direction of special agent James Wynne, known internationally for solving art crimes.
And then, as Perenyi relates in his book, after five years of stress and legal advice, it ended. "Maybe they didn't want to open that can of worms," he says. His requests for the FBI's file on the case under the Freedom of Information Act brought the response that it remains "exempt from disclosure."
By 2000, Perenyi had stopped selling forgeries, he says. But he had not stopped painting fakes — or selling them. At kenperenyi.com is this disclaimer:
"All paintings offered for sale on this web site whether in the form of a copy, facsimile, fake, forgery, reproduction, recreation or original composition are modern works executed exclusively by Ken Perenyi. All paintings are sold for decorative proposes only."
He estimates he has sold more than 300 of those up-front fakes. He sells them himself and through Trinity Gallery in St. Petersburg; prices for his paintings range from $2,500 to more than $30,000.
For a while, Perenyi had his own gallery on Beach Drive in St. Petersburg. While he was hanging around the gallery, he says, he wrote much of Caveat Emptor — on a 1915 Underwood manual typewriter.
"It took me a couple of years after the investigation ended to realize I was in a new chapter and my old life was really over," he says. "I had an urge just to tell the story."
The book found a publisher quickly, he says. He fretted that he had included too much material about his methods for aging paintings, replete with arcana like rabbit-skin glue and rotten stone. But editors at Pegasus, his publisher, "were enthralled with the technical details, the tricks of the trade."
Caveat Emptor is getting plenty of buzz: stories in the New York Times, the Guardian and Le Figaro, radio and TV interviews for Perenyi. Not to mention that movie option.
For Perenyi, it's a love story, not a confession of guilt.
"For me, it's hard to imagine feeling guilty about creating these beautiful paintings. That has been the love of my life.
"Do I feel guilty about taking money from auction houses? The idea is laughable. . . . These were not poor people. This was a world of glamor and money, and plenty of it."
Perenyi says he can't even imagine what he might be doing if he had not followed his love for art down its crooked path.
"Art gave me a wonderful life. And I lived to tell the story."
Colette Bancroft can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8435.