Caveat Emptor A Convoluted Moral Quandary
- Wednesday, August 22, 2012
Author: Ken Perenyi
Title: Caveat Emptor: The Secret Life of an American Art Forger
Publisher: Pegasus Books
A Catch Me if You Can set in the art world, Ken Perenyi's Caveat Emptor is bound to make headlines for pulling back the curtain on the tricks of the trade of one of America's longest-tenured forgers, thereby painting Sotheby's, Christie's and other snooty auction houses as gullible stooges for decades.
The book's title - Latin for "let the buyer beware" - is likely Perenyi's tongue-in-cheek tribute to all those poor saps who bought his work over the years for much more than it was worth. And because the statute of limitations on most of his "crimes" has run out - meaning no federal jail time - Perenyi and his publishers suppose now's the right enough time to reveal his secrets. And who doesn't love a good con game? Ron Howard's already optioned the book for a film adaptation. One can almost see Leonardo DiCaprio as Perenyi hobnobbing with New York's art elite and jet-setting his way to auction houses around the world to peddle his wares.
Perenyi's life is a mash-up of an Alger rags-to-riches tale and Forrest Gump. Rising from a humble upbringing in Palisades Park, New Jersey, Perenyi manages to turn chance encounters with beatniks, mobsters, and legitimate art experts into an on-again, off-again relationship with art forgery. But, he insists, he always wanted to be a "legitimate" artist. In the process, he reveals the answer to the burning question: what drives someone to become an art forger?
The answer is fairly simple: greed. After flirting with a full-time commitment to art forgery as his vocation, Perenyi finally takes the plunge in the 80's when he - like the cartoon character whose eyeballs turn into dollar signs - sees the financial windfall lurking. From that point on, he tosses caution - and conscience - to the wind, and starts churning out forgeries that baffle the upper echelon of art critics.
While the biographical details of Perenyi's tale are fairly humdrum, the age-old philosophical question implied is much more fascinating: what makes art, art? If a self-taught kid from Joisey can - with enough study and dedication - produce art equal to, or perhaps better than masterpieces like Gilbert Stuart's famous George Washington, who's to say he's not also a genius? But while one attends swanky gallery openings, the other toils in obscurity and dodges the FBI for decades.
And - playing devil's advocate - there's a point to be made here about the subjective nature of the art world. Perenyi is obviously an art lover. And a talented artist. So … what makes his work NOT art? Even now, he's hard at work in his Florida studio creating spot-on recreations of famous art. The only difference is now he's not pretending they're the work of another. They're sort of a designer knock-off, kind of like those scarves on the street in New York, but without the claims of authenticity. Of course, Perenyi wants you to sympathize with him by implying there was nothing unsavory about his work all along. He never told those dealers and auction houses my work wasn't my own; he only waved the paintings under their noses and their greed led them to throw money at him.
The fact that Caveat Emptor elicits such a conversation is a credit to the detail Perenyi packs into its pages. It's a fascinating read, not as much for the life it describes as to the pursuit of that life, and the ethical questions it raises. So maybe they'll make a movie about him or maybe they won't. But Perenyi's story is enough to make anyone considering a high-priced art purchase take a second look.
*This Review First Published 8/21/2012
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