Book Review: Caveat Emptor: The Secret Life of an American Art Forger

Book Review: Caveat Emptor: The Secret Life of an American Art Forger

By Ken Perenyi

Caveat Emptor is an autobiographical account of one artist’s (Ken Perenyi) journey from a lost, trouble-making teenager to a morally lost, but successful art forger.   At the height of his illegal career as a forger Ken was able to pass off a forgery of a Martin Johnson Heade painting to a reputable auction house in which it was sold for more than $700,000! The book starts off with a bit of a yawn as the author reminisces his influential relationships with a drugged-out culture of freaks and crooks. Far too much time was spent developing characters that had small roles in the decades that ensued afterwards.

With no visible remorse the author weaves a story that is at times almost hard to believe. How much of a career liar can you believe? Although Mr. Perenyi likes to boast about his conquests, that of which involve art collectors and with his occasional mistress I found the story of painting fabrication to be fascinating. I read the book thirsty for the techniques he employed, both artistic and otherwise. On this he delivered and this is precisely what kept me reading.

disclaimer: I have never been an art forger and do not aspire to be an art forger, but I am fascinated by art materials, techniques, and how one can master such things to fool even the most trained professionals.

Ken Perenyi’s creativity and sheer resourcefulness for fooling the highest level of authorities left me stunned. Everything from using old furniture the get “period panels”, wood panels that were indeed from the era of the painting he was faking to buying old paintings and salvaging the varnishes so that they would pass Ultraviolet light tests when reusing the varnish on top of his forgeries.   “Hmmm” I found myself saying, it was brilliant…crooked thievery, but brilliant at the same time. I liken it to one of those great heist movies, Ocean’s 11 or The Italian Job comes to mind, in which you find yourself rooting for the crooks even though deep down you know it’s wrong.

As an oil painter trained in traditional techniques I enjoy reading about painting materials and methods any chance I get. For this reason alone I really enjoyed Caveat Emptor by Ken Perenyi. While at times I wish he was a wee bit more descriptive about his forgery process, he definitely kept me interested. To be quite honest I’m always thirsty for more. I can talk about the most mundane aspects of paint for hours. If you’re like me and you like reading about the how’s and why’s of painting fabrication this book is definitely worth a look.


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