After selling hundreds of forgeries, a conman sells “genuine fakes”


I write about an incredibly talented forger  in today’s Times:

Published: July 18, 2012

MADEIRA BEACH, Fla. — 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.

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.

Perenyi tells his own story in a new memoir titled “Caveat Emptor” due out August 6th.



11 responses to “After selling hundreds of forgeries, a conman sells “genuine fakes”

  1. That level of talent, a lot more integrity and some serious study at any good art school might have produced a genuinely original creative talent instead of just a con artist “businessman”. Of course he would never have made as much money. I don’t feel there’s anything wrong with copying, but at least he could have chosen some better art to copy. How about James Wyeth, who also painted in a classical style using old master techniques? Or Remington for “Western” art with a little more action, instead of all the boring, static portraits of Indian chiefs? Now those would be paintings worth paying some real money for.

    • Perenyi said that he had dreams of becoming an artist decades ago, but that a piece that he had started was ruined when the ceiling fell in …he never really returned to it….I think the lure of the moneyed life was simply more appealing.

  2. Your story in the Times was well told, and was reprinted in an abbreviated version here in Taiwan in a local English newspaper for expats. I had a few questions: one: why didn’t the Times Miami bureau reporter cover this story? In other words, why did a New York based reporter fly all the way down to Florida to “get” this story? Was there any collusion between the Pegasus Books PR team and you? I mean, did the Pegasus PR person alert you to this book over drinks one day in Manhattan and sort of ”ask” you (scare quotes mine) to see if the TImes wanted to “report” this story pre-publication? I mean the timing was weird. Read like PR plant. Fascinating.

    • That’s a pretty cynical– and insulting — take. Being in the culture department, I get scores of books from publishers and I also regularly scan book catalogues looking for titles that look interesting and that I might want to write about. Lately, I’ve been writing a lot about art forgery and I saw a galley of Ken Perenyi’s book “Caveat Emptor,” which mentioned he was now selling “genuine fakes.” I noticed a few other references to similar practices and I thought it would make a good story, so I discussed it with my editor. Reporters in culture, as well as other sections like style and science, frequently travel to other places to do stories that are on their beat. That is why the fashion writers cover the catwalks in Paris even though we have a bureau there, and our art writers go to Basel, Miami and Swtizerland, and our music reporter went with the Philharmonic to North Korea and so on. It’s my beat, so I am the one to cover the story. I never corresponded with anyone from Pegasus until I called them to inquire, for my story, what kind of fact-checking measures they took to verify the author’s account. As for the timing, stories about the book were beginning to appear in the British press, and if I waited any longer, the Times would have been late with the story instead of first.
      As for your other questions about Perenyi’s religion and sexual preference, neither was relevant to the story. How come you didn’t mention your own race, religion and sexual preferences in this post? Perhaps I should be asking who is putting you up to this and why the cover-up.

  3. And two: while the TImes story does not say, reading between the lines is ”appears” (scare quotes not intended) that Mr Perenyi is Jewish and gay. If true, why were these two bio items not included in an otherwise facscinating story

  4. Thanks for your good explanation. The only way people respond to my questions I have found is if I am straightforward and blunt. Otherwise, they ignore me. Thanks for not ignoring my questions above, Patti. First of all, I want to apologize if my questions came across as ‘insulting” (scare quotes yours) and “cynical” (scare quotes ditto). I never “intended” to be insulting and I apologize, mano a mano, I mean, reporter a reporter. As for being cynical, I plead guilty, as a longtime reader of PW since 1971 and longtime reader of the Times, since 1956. I believe everything you said in your explain, thanks, and thanks for being so candid. One thing I still don’t understand is this: if you had no contact with Pegasus until later, then how did the galley get into your hands? Either from Ken or from his agent or from the gallery in Florida? Must be one of them. Either way, I still see your story as a PR “plant” and well-conceived and well-placed plant at that, but if that word is too strong, then maybe then just a very good PR mission accomplished. How would a galley of an unublished book get into a NYT reporter’s hands if not from the publisher or the agent? Be honest. Look, I am not criticising you, all articles in the Times are in some some PR success stories. The news biz could not operate without great PR people in the shadows. I know that, you know that. As for Ken’s personal life, when I read the story, between the lines, I saw another kind of Madoff character, a Jewish con man, and I hate Jewish con man stories. Brings out the antisemities again. Why is Perenyi cast as a hero here and why does he get a book deal? He was an unethical conman forger. We celebrate that? Oi. As for my own biopic, I am non-White, Jewish, straight, eccentric climate activist, and I fully accept all other races, religions and sexual perferences. But Patti, as for asking me “who is putting you []meaning me!] up to this and why the cover up”, ouch! That’s New York paranoi there: I am in Taiwan, you know what, and I operate on my own: who in the world would be putting me up to this? I ask my own questions. For myself. I don’t work for anyone except a company called Truth. Cover up? Cover up of what? Sheesh, I ask some pointed questions and I get a barbed conclusion aimed right at me? Whatever, I forgive you, and I do thank you for explaining the background of the story to me. I see now. I apologize for pushing the envelope but that’s my job. Still, can you explain how galley came to you, if not from publisher or agent or “a friend” who thought you might be interested in this book? Just curious. Is it now a crime to be curious about work things work at the Times? Btw, I love love love the Times!

  5. I think my main question, in my own mind, was “why are we celebrating a dishonest, unethical forger con man”? We, meaning the NYT, we meaning the culture at large. Had the article been a bit more critical of the man’s cons and questioned why a publisher gave him a book deal, the story might have been better, IMHO. Remember the Herman Rosenblat fake Holocaust memoir APPLES AT THE FENCE that Oprah championed so much and which I caused to be cancelled before publication? Yes, Patti, I am the man who took down the fake Holocaust memoir. Ask Gabe Sherman. I gave him all the smoking guns. Nobody listened to me until he finally did. I smell a similar distasteful odor from Perenyi’s book. Not a hoax this time, but why does our culture celebrate imposters and fakes and con men?

  6. I saw the Guaridan story on July 7 , okay. Now i see backgund more clearly. still, the galley, who it came to you if not by Publisher or agent? Art dealer? Ken himself? he lived in Uk for 30 years? is that true?

  7. Oops. I think I spoke too soon, above. RE: Wiki ”Parish Priest Perényi forbade from the pulpit any ill treatment of the Jewish population”

  8. Pub Lunch tells me: Alleged American art forger Ken Perenyi’s CAVEAT EMPTOR: in a nice deal, by Kate Epstein at Epstein Literary Agency.
    True? She’s the book agent?

  9. Don Fehr is the agent, Allan Smithee is the ghostwriter. and: re……”CAVEAT EMPTOR: The Secret [Ghostwritten] Life of an [Unethical, Dishonest] ]American ‘Art’ (scare quotes intended) Forger” …..
    Unconvicted because never charged yet fully admitting his past, American art forger Ken Perenyi’s ghostwritten “memoir” (scare quotes intended) titled “CAVEAT EMPTOR: The Secret Life of an American Art Forger”, the ghostwritten confessional tell-all of how a “tune in, turn on, drop out” high school kid from 1960s New Jersey learned to forge the great 19th century American artists and dupe the biggest auction houses and galleries in New York and London for 30 years without getting caught, was edited by Claiborne Hancock at Pegasus Books and agented by Don Fehr at Trident Media Group. Unfortunately, he never presents the reader with an authentic depiction of the mind of a pathological fraud, which is really what the book should have been all about. Wait for the movie, with Leonardo DeCaprio reprising his role as Frank, er, Ken Perenyi?

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