Caveat Emptor (The Secret Life of an American Art Forger)

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Ken Perenyi’s book, “Caveat Emptor,” is a study in audacity.

The title of his book “Caveat Emptor” (The Secret Life of an American Art Forger) reflects a dark side.

And it gets worse.

When he was just getting started as an art forger during the late 1960s, he figured he had to find some way to dodge the draft for the Vietnam War.

So this is how he did it:

He found out by reading a book that he wanted to be classified as a “1-Y.”

According to the book, 1-Ys were handed out to “physical wrecks and psychological misfits,” and the 4-F was for the “incorrigibly wicked.”

Both of these classifications were so derogatory that his chances of getting a job were slim.

Perenyi made sure he scored low on the tests, so low that he was interviewed:

Have you ever taken drugs?

“Yeah.”

What kind?

“Pot, acid and speed.”

How often?

“Every day.”

Have you ever received psychiatric help or been admitted to an institution?

“Whadda I look like? Some kinda degenerate.”

Weeks later, when he received his draft card, 1-Y was stamped in bold letters.

Now that he did not have to worry about the draft, Perenyi renewed his goal to become an art forger.

He grew up during the late 1960s within the culture of Greenwich Village, and developed enough skill and uderstanding of art to become one of the better art forgers.

His book “Caveat Emptor” (AKA, let the buyer beware) explains how he made a lot of money, and how he never got caught. Well, on second thought you can’t say he didn’t get caught, but you can say the FBI couldn’t make a case against him.

His career began with the reading of a book about Han van Meegeren, a Dutch art forger. To be one you have to know one so Perenyi studied Meegeren.

And he studied paintings, not just the painting itself, but the frame, the back of the painting, the aging process; all those things a forger would have to understand so he could make a fake painting.

He also studied still-life painting, marine painting, portraits and historical paintings. He also studied the artists.

Most significantly, he studied art dealers. He would have to deal with them if he hoped to sell his forgeries. As you read this book, you may find that people who buy, sell and collect art may appear to be more subtle than the rest of us.

After years of selling forgeries, Perenyi did have to deal with the FBI, which has an art investigation department. A top agent did interview him, but after a five-year investigation and a mountain of evidence collected, no one was charged with a crime or indicted.

Over the years, Perenyi had become wealthy, meaning he had the best lawyers money could buy.

Also, there is a significant point of law in dealing with charges involving forgeries: It’s not illegal to sell or create fake paintings, as long as they are sold as such. As harmless as this sounds, it puts a heavy burden on the prosecution in such cases.

I would never have read this book if a friend had not sent me a copy.

I did enjoy the story, and I think it would make a great movie. James Mason was so good at playing these types of characters, but Mason is no longer with us.

 

Gillis Morgan is an associate professor emeritus of journalism at Auburn University and an award-winning columnist. He can be reached at morgarg7@aol.com

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