Edward Linsmier for The New York Times
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.
“I realized the life I knew and loved was over,” he said of his career as a con man. Whereas one Perenyi forgery fetched more than $ 700,000 at auction, now he sells a nearly identical work for as little as $ 5,000. They are the art-world equivalent of a three-carat cubic zirconia that can be flaunted as a Tiffany diamond.
Are they sold as authentic by the people who buy them?
“During the first few years of trying to market and sell my paintings legitimately, I couldn’t say where they went or what people did with them,” Mr. Perenyi, 63, said in an interview at his home. Behind him hung three fake Buttersworths, similar to the yachts that first attracted the F.B.I.’s notice. “Today I have an established clientele, and I only sell to people I know.”
Though many businesses sell fine-art reproductions, few can match Mr. Perenyi’s craftsmanship — or his checkered past.
His forgeries, he says, financed an extravagant lifestyle that included European trips, exclusive restaurants, Versace couture and “total freedom.” He says they brought him into contact with mob enforcers, the lawyer Roy Cohn and Andy Warhol, who, he says, bought one of his forgeries, a John F. Peto.
He gives details of his exploits in a forthcoming memoir, “Caveat Emptor: the Secret Life of an American Art Forger” (Pegasus Books), which has been optioned by RKO Pictures. It is being marketed as a confession, and Mr. Perenyi, who is open in discussing his life as a swindler, is safe in the knowledge that the statute of limitations for his forgeries has passed.
An F.B.I. spokesman said that officials could not comment on the accuracy of his account because the case file, while inactive, had not been closed.
As for Pegasus, Claiborne Hancock, the publisher, said a lawyer had vetted the manuscript. Mr. Perenyi also has receipts for some works he had consigned for auction as a dealer but, in reality, had created.
Mr. Perenyi estimates that hundreds of his fakes remain in circulation. Occasionally he glimpses one (“It’s like bumping into an old friend”) in an auction catalog or in a magazine. “I miss the addictive thrill of fooling the experts,” he said. “It was great sport for me.”
A spokesman for Sotheby’s declined to comment. A spokesman for Christie’s said that the names of consigners are confidential but noted that a work Mr. Perenyi refers to as his own, a rendering attributed to Heade of two hummingbirds that was sold in 1993, is in the artist’s catalogue raisonné, the definitive compendium of his work. The author of the Heade catalogue, Theodore E. Stebbins Jr. , a curator of American art at the Harvard Art Museums, said that if Mr. Perenyi’s account is persuasive, he would need to re-examine the work.
The difference between Mr. Perenyi’s legal business and his criminal one is that now he makes clear his paintings are reproductions, even though they have the artist’s signature. Fraud applies only when someone actively misrepresents a copy as an original.
But he continues to take immense pride in his skill. “There’s no one who does what I do,” he said.
Actually, in Europe, there is. John Myatt, a British forger who spent four months in prison in 1999, also sells “genuine fakes” for a chain of galleries owned by a British publishing company. Top-notch artists like Mr. Myatt and Mr. Perenyi can command relatively high prices for fakes. Mr. Perenyi prices his reproductions, with their carefully aged frames, canvases and backings, from $ 2,500 for a small hummingbird that he signs with Heade’s name to $ 30,000 for a large Roman vista after Pannini.
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