Book Review: Caveat Emptor

Front cover for Caveat Emptor

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About a week ago, I finished Caveat Emptor:  The Secret Life of an American Art Forger.  I loved this book.  It was a very light read – it will go fast!  And pretty entertaining and engaging throughout.  Ken Perenyi tells his story in this book and that traces his life from growing up totally uninspired by schooling in his childhood in New Jersey, to finding some friends in the art world in New York City at a pivotal time for him, to having little luck with his own art, and finally to how he ended up forging art for a living.  He can tell this story because the statute of limitations on his crimes has expired.


He first learns to forge some simple pieces, but Perenyi explains how he evolved over his career – moving from Dutch paintings to American paintings to British paintings.  He describes what techniques (e.g. achieving the perfect cracking patterns or fly poop specks in the corners of paintings) he learned when and how.  Each new technique would open up a new school of painters he could impersonate.

Success:  Perenyi had an amazing degree of success.  This was driven in no small part by Sotheby’s and Christie’s who hungrily bought his work to sell at auction.  Perenyi realized that if these auction houses held no responsibility if they sold a fraud as their fine print indicated:  “Subject to the obligations accepted by Christie’s under this condition, neither the seller, Christie’s, its employees, or agents is responsible for the correctness of any statement as to the authorship, origin, date, age, size, medium, attribution, genuineness, or provenance of any lot.”  Perenyi writes:

So, after reading these conditions and realizing that:

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.

So, if he could get them to buy it, and then to sell it successfully, then he was mostly in the clear!

This book raised some really interesting questions for me, as I considered my own training in libraries & archival management and ethics.  Clearly there is an incentive for the auction houses to sell works.  They must do a certain amount of due diligence so that their reputation remains high and they can continue to sell works.  But a few “cheaters” may boost their bottom line without harming anything in there view.  Authenticity does not have quite the same kind of importance or implications in this business than in archives, that’s for sure.

Also, the book raised an issue of whether people care about forgeries.  Perenyi came to think of his forgeries as extensions of the artist’s work (he spoke of taking the art to levels the artist would have gotten to had there been time and the right experiences).  A quick note about his forgeries:  he never forged by recreating a work already out there.  No, he painted works that looked plausibly by the artists.  He would study an artist and make works in that same vein.  If his works were sold as “in the circle of” an artist, is that so incorrect?  Certainly the date is incorrect. But, people buy art.  And if they buy something for $20,000, they think it’s worth that.  Is it okay if it’s not by whom they thought?  In some cases, perhaps yes.  In others, certainly not.  It reminds me of a chapter in Michael Sandel’s Justice about an old woman who pays a maintenance person $20,000 to fix a toilet.  She didn’t know that that price was exorbitant.  But she entered into a contract and Sandel talked about the moral issues there and whether that contract was valid – the courts decided it was not I believe.

Sometimes Perenyi realized an artist would take the same ship or horse or flower and just put different backgrounds behind it.  He would use a stencil to create the ship, horse, or flower and find a background that could be plausibly used and paint that.  If the final piece was something that could truly have been plausibly painted by the artist, is it so wrong that it would be worth as much as if it had been painted by that artist?  If he was just doing something the artist truly would have done?

These days, Perenyi still creates “forgeries” but he sells them legitimately.  You can buy a Buttersworth or Heade or anything else you want by Perenyi.  He sells his own art too.  Now there appears to be a legitimate market for his fakes.  So anything he sold as fakes might have accrued value by virtue of this story in and of itself!  Fascinating!  And perhaps the ones he sold early on would be worth more than the ones he sold as legitimate fakes because of their unique provenance.  Who knows.

In any case.  Good book.  Fast read.  Raised some really intriguing issues.  Read it and tell me what you think!  By the way, in case you didn’t know, “Caveat Emptor” essentially translates to “buyer beware.”


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