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Nothing more than weeds
by Marco Grassi
A review of Caveat Emptor: The Secret Life of an American Art Forger by Ken Perenyi
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Many New Yorkers will remember with what bitter disillusion they learned, in the early 1980s, that one of the Metropolitan Museum’s most admired and precious Renaissance treasures was, in fact, a nineteenth-century concoction. Predictably, they may also have experienced a frisson of satisfaction that, yet again, those learned, pompous art historians and connoisseurs had been duped, this time for decades on end. In fact, the glorious, and gloriously extravagant, “Rospigliosi Cup” turned out to be the inspired invention of a supremely gifted but totally obscure Aachen goldsmith named Reinhold Vasters (1827–1909). The magnificent gold and jewel-encrusted object had entered the museum in 1913 with the Benjamin Altman bequest as a work of none other than Benvenuto Cellini. By a striking coincidence, only a few years after the “Cellini” cup was grandly installed at the Metropolitan, a huge cache of Vasters drawings was given to the Victoria and Albert Museum in London—and then promptly forgotten. It was not until 1975 that the perceptive eye of the scholars Charles Truman and Yvonne Hackenbroch made the connection between some of the hundreds of careful preparatory sketches and the “Rospigliosi Cup.” Not surprisingly, dozens more heretofore prized “Renaissance” jewels in distinguished private and public collections the world over were soon recognized among the Vasters drawings and thus attributed to his workshop.
The sensational discovery occurred just at a time when postmodern attitudes in the interpretation and practice of art history were evolving and gaining credence. Forgeries and their makers were beginning to gain attention in the academic community: deception was now being taken seriously as a significant manifestation of artistic creativity and began occupying a legitimate place in the historical record. Publications such as The Forger’s Art (1983) and Why Fakes Matter (1990) presented collections of scholarly papers on subjects as diverse as the notorious careers of Han van Meegeren (1889–1947), the Vermeer forger, and Thomas Chatterton (1753–1770), the tragic teenage prodigy who briefly fooled Horace Walpole with his “mediaeval” poems. The sense that one derives from a careful reading of these often dense discourses is that their authors are singularly ill at ease about defining the difference between genuine and counterfeit, both in terms of aesthetic philosophy and art history. They seem to be at pains to convince us, albeit halfheartedly, about the superiority of the former while carefully avoiding condemning the latter. We are meant ultimately to ask ourselves: By the measure of this postmodern and conceptually deconstructed world, is there really any difference? And even if there is, should we care? The subtle and prevailing subtext in most of these writings is that, au fond, we might just as well not.
The distinguished art dealer and collector E. V. Thaw rightly expressed a very low opinion of what he called such “intellectual hijinks” in reviewing The Forger’s Art in these pages (The New Criterion, October 1983). He astutely pointed out that “an anti-elitist political position combined with a fundamentally philistine sensibility” lurked beneath the surface of many of these essays, and concluded with a statement that should serve as the immutable principle in approaching the issue: “For those who have learned to read the language of art, the experience of original works is one of the greatest pleasures of civilized life.” In the wake of the Vasters brouhaha, the inimitable John Russell wrote a Times article in which he approvingly quoted Thaw adding that fakes “are like weeds. Possessed of a phenomenal destructive energy, they are no sooner disproven than they turn up again.” The idea that there is really no difference between a fake and an original is, according to Russell, “a point of view in which a goofy, uncomprehending populism allies itself unwittingly with criminality.”
In his recent memoir Caveat Emptor, Ken Perenyi claims that in his long career as a forger he palmed off hundreds of faked paintings as original works of art. If these are the “weeds” that Russell deplored, then a Vasters jewel is, by comparison, a rare orchid. Vasters was, of course, never unmasked while alive and surely would have abhorred the thought of writing about his accomplishments; we consequently know very little about the man’s life. Conversely, Perenyi tells us more about his than we really care to learn. Coming from a gritty working-class background, the enterprising Perenyi was, by his own admission, blessed with a remarkable string of fortunate encounters. It began in his late teens when he was adopted as a sort of sidekick mascot by a group of with-it artists on the fringes of New York’s go-go art scene of the late 1960s and early 70s. Small-time hoods, spacey models, and assorted potheads weave in and out of Perenyi’s pages, their paths inevitably crossing and re-crossing at Max’s Kansas City, a hot spot for artists and intellectuals during those years. In time, further good fortune smiled on the budding forger. Higher profile individuals appear: the über-macher Roy Cohn, the art collector Walter Chrysler, the reclusive American art guru James Ricau, all seemingly taking instantly to Perenyi’s charm and contributing significantly to the progress of his chosen career. As most others forgers, Perenyi began tentatively, by trial and error. He tested and experimented with various techniques after what appears to have been very superficial research of painters’ mediums, styles, and subject matters.
After several reasonably successful exploits with down-market European old masters, Perenyi’s good fortune, quick wit, or both led him to a genre which was, just then, experiencing a demand explosion: nineteenth-century American art. The painters he chose to imitate were, by any measure, second-tier figures such as Martin Johnson Heade, John Peto, James Buttersworth, and Antonio Jacobson. The works of these artists have several things in common besides their market appeal: they are relatively plentiful, are generally of modest size, and are executed in a basic, unelaborated oil technique. Even more important from a forger’s point of view is the fact that the visual language of these painters invariably consisted of standard, interchangeable elements or “props.” These elements, although different in each artist, were consistently used and re-used in ever-changing compositional arrangements. All the forger needs to do is make careful templates of the components—birds, haystacks, and flowers for Heade; pipes, books, and beer mugs for Peto; hulls, sails, and shorelines for the marine painters—and rearrange them to suit the size and format of the genuinely antique canvas being recycled for the occasion. The results would never be direct copies of known works, but easily recognizable variations of valuable original prototypes. Perenyi appears to have paid special attention to using good quality old frames to complete his confections and to marketing them through galleries and auction houses via third parties or as “consignments” from trusting friends. Unlike some of his more famous predecessors, he never claimed to have been the unsuspecting dupe of unscrupulous dealers; invariably and emphatically he was both the willful creator and eager perpetrator of the fraud.
Perenyi must be rather an anglophile because, at one point, he happily settled in Bath and began churning out sporting pictures in the Herring and Sartorius mode, as well as dreadful versions of nineteenth-century “farm animal portraits” (even more dreadful than the originals)—all very appealing to freshly minted country squires from the trading desks of the City and Wall Street. Much like his earlier production, these forgeries were also just as easily recreated with a mix-and-match technique of stock components. The proximity to London’s buzzing art market, however, proved to be the forger’s undoing. A couple of careless sales and consignments left a clear trail that led the fbi directly to his door. Years of shadowboxing with the feds followed while more and more of Perenyi’s “products” were being identified for what they were. The author finally saw the wisdom of retiring as a forger and is now, apparently, enjoying a brisk trade in “authentic copies.” He ultimately dodged an indictment that was waiting in the wings only by dint of the statute of limitations.
What was the quality of Perenyi’s forgery? Judging by the ready and widespread acceptance of his paintings, one would guess that the deceptions were brilliant, especially considering that two of his phony Heades achieved auction records; the first fetching almost $100,000 in 1993 and the second nearly eight times as much a year later. In reality, quite the opposite is true. Almost all the pictures are pale reflections of the originals on which they are based. The truth is that, at the time, no one was really looking and that no one really cared: not the collectors, not the galleries, not the auction houses, and, occasionally, not even the recognized experts. In the mid-1980s the American nineteenth-century market had blossomed almost overnight into a huge, churning free-for-all with flamboyant demand far outstripping supply. Buyers were almost exclusively private collectors fixated on the new hot fad, eager to participate in the speculative binge. Many were inexperienced and never thought of submitting their purchases to careful conservation and technical examination. The author himself admits that at times he would embark “on painting marathons, knocking out one picture after another.” So much for quality and artistic commitment. No wonder that by the late 1990s the music stopped.
Perenyi tells his story in a style that is flat, pedestrian, and sordidly venal—in its way, quite appropriate to the shoddy products that he so successfully produced and peddled. The promise of the first several chapters with their vivid vignettes of down-at-the-heels bohemian life in New York are followed by an endless recitation of petty imbroglios and chicanery. In truth, Perenyi’s fakes reveal themselves as nothing more than the “weeds” of which John Russell was so contemptuous, and the garden in which they grew only a depressing empty lot.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 31 February 2013, on page 74
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