PINELLAS COUNTY, Fla. - If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, in the art world, Ken Perenyi's imitations have made him a pariah with a paintbrush. "It was a love. It was a passion. It was a contest of wits," says Perenyi from his waterfront art studio in Pinellas County.
It was also a game of risk that for three decades eluded the FBI, fooled the art world and netted Perenyi millions of dollars. What he calls his gift was also a scam for years.
As a starving artist in New York City, Perenyi found he had the unique ability to match with precise detail the greatest pieces of artwork ever created. It's taken 30 years of my life to perfect these skills. The thrill of planning something out like a great painting and can sell it off as an original there's just something intoxicating about that," Perenyi says.
By the late 1980's, Perenyi says he went from a starving artist to one of the world's best art forgers. He scammed the wealthiest one-percenters in the finest auction houses from the United States to Europe. "I would go to Sotheby's one day, Christie's another time. Phillips, Bonham's and then I also worked it on both sides of the Atlantic," Perenyi boasts even still to this day. His biggest pay day was a Martin Johnson Heade that went for $700,000 at auction. With his canvas as his con, by his estimates he has sold nearly one thousand fakes.
"I went for years selling paintings $10,000 to $20,000 and so I always made a very good living," Says Perenyi.
Perenyi said he was careful never to sell them as originals, saying he let the buyer believe what they wanted to believe.
Perhaps more impressive, Perenyi even learned how to fake father time. He learned how to crack the canvas to imitate aging and even discovered a way to transfer period varnish onto his paintings that tripped up the world's best art forensics detectives.
But if you think Perenyi is proud of the front of his paintings, he is even prouder of the back of his forgeries.
He used aged frames he found at yard sales. On those frames, he would apply what look like worn out, tea-stained stickers.
He even faked auction house chalk marks which are common with art pieces that have been passed around for decades or even centuries.
His techniques fooled them all until Perenyi says the FBI came knocking one day but never charged him.
If you ask him now if he regrets all of that fool's gold that hangs on walls all over the world and you will not get any apologies from Ken Perenyi.
"I'm proud of my achievements in the art world and my only regret is I was discovered," Perenyi says.
He can now boast about his past because the FBI case against him is closed and the statute of limitations has run out.
Perenyi is still busy painting art classics these days but he is very clear that what you are buying is a reproduction.
Perenyi's scam is greatly detailed in his new book "Caveat Emptor: The Secret Life of an American Art Forger."
For more information and to see more of Perenyi's fakes go to: kenperenyi.com