“I believe that experts will always believe their eyes and their own opinions,” said Ken Perenyi, surveying a crowd of art professionals, lawyers, and a screenwriter or two assembled early last month at the Art Crime Symposium hosted by New York University’s School of Professional Studies. Perenyi, often regarded as one of the best forgers of 19th-century British and American paintings, was referring to the apparent lack of chemical analysis performed on the vast majority of his work, which he sold for several decades through some of the world’s leading auction houses. An FBI investigation into his output was opened in the late ’90s and was closed five years later in cloudy circumstances. (The agency did perform chemical analysis on a number of works, analysis which, according to Orion Analytical principal James Martin, revealed them to be some of the most obvious fakes he has seen, chemically and, despite being some of the best, aesthetically.) But why have forgers like Perenyi been able to produce so much work over such long periods of time and get away with it? Reasons abound, but one of them is within grasp of being fixed.
Perenyi, who like fellow master-forger Wolfgang Beltracchi, now sells imitations of a given artist—what would otherwise be considered fakes—would have one believe that it was his sheer ability that allowed him to pass in front of experts and into collectors’ homes and storage facilities undetected. Aside from perfecting his mimicry of masters such as
and J.E. Buttersworth, he developed a technique of aging his paintings with remarkable visual verisimilitude, oxidizing the backs of canvases and custom-built stretchers with watercolors, dust, and other pigments. He used gesso of a particular stiffness such that cracks in the oil that would typically appear after decades could be created with the push of a thumb onto the canvas. And he used onion skin tape along the edges, just as would have been used on a canvas that had been relined.
“A high class fake has to fit in logically within the evolution of an artist’s work.” –Ken Perenyi
The forger went to great lengths (and considerable monetary investment) to understand the oeuvres of the painters whose works he was knocking off. “A high-class fake has to fit in logically within the evolution of an artist’s work,” he explained, noting the use of motifs and elements found in other works from the fake’s purported period. But it’s also safe to say that the remorseless Perenyi (who, when asked if he felt badly for those who had purchased his works replied, “No, because I think they got a very good piece of art”) may have an ego of sufficient size to shield his self-assessment from the true circumstances behind why he wasn’t officially discovered.
For one, the paintings Perenyi prefers to fake are of a relatively unfashionable era in market terms. So much so that he has received some credit for raising the profile of some of his favored artists following the publication of his book, Caveat Emptor, in 2013. And even within those artists’ outputs, his works (perhaps strategically) weren’t aiming to be historically important. “My paintings were not the type that academics would be writing papers about or publishing in catalogues,” said Perenyi, explaining that acceptance by dealers, collectors, and auction house experts was sufficient seal of approval in his mind. He conceded, “I could have made a great deal more money faking modern art,” but his passion in forgery nonetheless remained pre-20th century.
“My paintings were not the type that academics would be writing papers about or publishing in catalogues.” –Ken Perenyi
As opposed to the up-to-$17 million
paid for one of the many fake works purporting authorship from
, and others that made up the $80 million, 15-year Knoedler Gallery forgery scandal, Perenyi’s paintings were small time. (Works by Pollock, and to some extent other very high-priced paintings where provenance isn’t airtight, are especially strong candidates for chemical analysis. The authenticity of most paintings, however, rides on expert intuition alone.) At the end of the time Perenyi was working, Buttersworth’s auction record was a relative pittance at $290,000; Perenyi’s “Buttersworths” were no doubt selling at prices well below that. As such, he had “a large field of auction houses to keep rotating through.” And this in the relatively early days of the semblance of transparency that the internet has brought to the art market—though it’s still pretty close to opaque a decade and a half later.