Ken Perenyi is a former art forger who spent 34 years creating fake paintings that passed muster among the experts in the world’s major auction houses and galleries. He comes clean to tell us how he got away with it in his book Caveat Emptor: The Secret Life of an American Art Forger.
What We Discuss with Ken Perenyi:
- How Ken, as an academically disinclined New Jersey teenager with no artistic background and zero plans for the future, fell headfirst into the New York art scene of the ’60s and ’70s.
- What a fortuitous trip to The Metropolitan Museum of Art awakened in Ken and how it led from technical curiosity to natural talent to outright forgery.
- How Ken prematurely aged his work to appear hundreds of years old, the materials he used, and how long it took him to create forgeries that would fool even lifelong, devoted experts.
- The first nervous deal Ken ever made and how it fed an ambition to take his talents as far as they would go.
- How Ken survived scrutiny by the mafia and FBI, changed his ways, and now works on the level selling “high-class fakes” rather than “forgeries.”
- And much more…
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Ken Perenyi may not be a household name like Rembrandt, but chances are pretty good he could get away with painting and selling a convincing facsimile of the Dutch master’s style as authentic to the world’s most serious collectors. If not Rembrandt, would you settle for van Eyck? Memling? Martin Johnson Heade? James E. Buttersworth? Ken could whip up something in the style of any of the above and more — that is, of course, if he were an art forger, which he definitely isn’t. Anymore.
In this episode we talk to Ken about his former life as an illicit creator and purveyor of fine art as laid out in his book Caveat Emptor: The Secret Life of an American Art Forger. Here, he shares the tactics and techniques that turned him from someone who hung out with artists for the thrill of the lifestyle to uncovering a latent talent for artistry that rivaled not only his peers, but the masters of the ages. He details 34 years as a literal scam artist, evading the scrutiny of everyone from the mafia to the FBI and living to tell the tale. Listen, learn, and enjoy!
Please Scroll down for Featured Resources and Transcript!
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THANKS, KEN PERENYI!
And if you want us to answer your questions on one of our upcoming weekly Feedback Friday episodes, drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Resources from This Episode:
- Caveat Emptor: The Secret Life of an American Art Forger by Ken Perenyi
- Ken Perenyi’s Website
- Ken Perenyi at Facebook
- This Guy Forged Famous Artists for Decades. Now He’s Gone Legit., Vice
- From the Archives: Fort Lee’s Castle, Patch
- Caveat Emptor Scrapbook by Ken Perenyi
- The Metropolitan Museum of Art
- Head of Christ by Rembrandt, Philadelphia Museum of Art
- Hieronymous Bosch — The Complete Works
- Han van Meegeren, Wikipedia
- Jan van Eyck, The Met
- Hans Memling — The Complete Works
- 43 5th Avenue, New York City
- Jan van Goyen, Wikipedia
- Salomon van Ruysdael, Wikipedia
- Max’s Kansas City
- Roy Cohn, Wikipedia
- 35 East 68th St., New York City
- Cracks and the Perception of Paintings, University of Cambridge
- Sotheby’s Auction House
- The Royal Crescent, Bath
- Stretching and Lining an Oil Painting by Anabela Ferguson
- Martin Johnson Heade — The Complete Works
- James E. Buttersworth, Wikipedia
- Richard Manoogian, The World’s Richest People, Forbes.com
- Spotty Taubman Collection Sale Brings In $377 M. at Sotheby’s, Led by a $42.8 M. Modigliani, ARTnews
Transcript for Ken Perenyi | The Secret Life of an American Art Forger (Episode 282)
Jordan Harbinger: [00:00:03] Welcome to the show. I’m Jordan Harbinger. As always, I’m here with producer Jason DeFillippo. On The Jordan Harbinger Show, we decode the stories, secrets, and skills of the world’s most brilliant and interesting people. And, we turn their wisdom into practical advice that you can use to impact your own life and those around you.[00:00:19] I want to help you see the Matrix when it comes to how these amazing people think and behave and wants you to become a better thinker. And if you’re new to the show, we’ve got episodes with spies and CEOs, athletes and authors, thinkers and performers, as well as toolboxes for negotiation, public speaking, body language, persuasion, and more. So if you’re smart and you’d like to learn and improve, then you’ll be right at home here with us. [00:00:41] Now, today, this is less of a self-improvement episode and more just to look inside the mind of somebody who’s brilliant, even if what they do isn’t necessarily above board — art forger, Ken Perenyi — Well, former art forger. Excuse me. That’s what I meant to say. This is just an incredible story. He discovers he’s got talent for this and just jumps right in. He didn’t even paint or draw as a kid. He just starts working on it, works with the mafia, works with art dealers. He works solo, makes millions in forged pieces. He’s literally walking around Manhattan with these $400,000 forgeries in these Bloomingdale’s big brown shopping bags. It’s just unbelievable. We’ll also get a peek inside how the auction houses try to deconstruct the painting and verify things to legit. They’re just going in old wood, old nails, every detail. Experts are inspecting these. Getting down to granular detail, just amazing. Ken explains that to make a fake antique painting, you need to start with a real antique painting, and Ken and I discuss how he did this over and over again and innovated in the field of art forgery. [00:01:43] If you want to know how I find all these amazing folks, I manage a lot of relationships. I use systems and I use tiny habits. I’m teaching you how to do that for free on our site and get a little mini-course in there, jordanharbinger.com/course is where you can find it. And by the way, most of the guests on the show, they subscribe to the course and the newsletter. Come join us, and you’ll be in great company. All right, now let’s get into the mind of Ken Perenyi. [00:02:09] Can you have an interesting story? I saw you at first on Vice, a piece on Vice, and I just thought, an art forger like this still exists. You don’t think about it, but art is, of course, still as valuable, if not more valuable as it always was. So it makes sense that this type of profession also exists.
Ken Perenyi: [00:02:28] Well, yeah, it’s art forgers have been very active in the last, I would say a decade, but more in the contemporary and modern art area. I probably set myself apart because I specialized in period paintings, old masters that require a lot of cracking and aging, and a lot of other visual forensics that I’ve had to incorporate in my paintings. I think art forgers of today and in the future are more involved in contemporary and modern art.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:03:00] Yeah, I think that, of course, makes sense. But I want to back up a little bit before we get to the actual type of art and everything. I want to get your background because I think a lot of folks wonder what kind of person becomes an art forger. And so of course, reading your book, Caveat Emptor — it wasn’t super surprising that you started off as a student who didn’t really care about school, daydreamed a lot. And then is it fair to say, started hanging out with some delinquents maybe?
Ken Perenyi: [00:03:27] Yeah, I would say more kids that weren’t really going anywhere in life. It was in the ’60s. We were coming up to the high watermark of the Hippie Movement. Thinking about the future and making something of your life was not really on the top of our agenda. I hang out with some local friends in the Palisades Park, Fort Lee area where I grew up in Bergen County, New Jersey. I would say what characterized my mid-teens was I had no plans of doing anything in life and I wasn’t college-oriented. I really didn’t care for school. I didn’t know where I was going to wind up in life. And then the ’60s movement came along — the hippie movement — and that seemed to kind of like blot out everything, who cared. I mean, who cares about the future, who cares about anything — it was just live for today, have fun. That’s where I pretty much was in 1967. Then my life took a major turn for the better, I would say.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:04:30] Yeah. Yeah. It sounds like you started to hang out with kind of this very trendy crowd. Andy Warhol is walking around. How did you get wrapped up with that crowd?
Ken Perenyi: [00:04:39] Well, it wasn’t really Andy Warhol. What happened was I was — as I mentioned, I grew up in Palisades Park. The next town over was Fort Lee. For those that may not be familiar with the area, Fort Lee is across the Hudson River from the north end of Manhattan and the George Washington Bridge joins Fort Lee to Washington Heights in New York City. Fort Lee was where I hung out mostly. I had friends there. It was a more livelier town and Fort Lee has a beautiful location, which is important. It’s right on the crest of the Palisade cliffs with a dramatic view of the Hudson River and New York City across the way. Part of Fort Lee at the very edge of town on an area of those cliffs was an old estate that had been there from the turn of the century. It was in dilapidated condition in the ‘60s. It was known locally as the chaos soul because it was of a neo-Gothic architectural design. In the ’60s — specifically in 67 — an artist from New York City by the name of Tom Daly and the buddy of his — by the name of Tony Masaccio — were able to lease, this oldest state. Tom wanted to turn it into an art studio for himself. He was a very talented and in-demand commercial artist. He was working with George Lois on Madison Avenue. They were doing all kinds of innovative things in the field of commercial art and Tom also did fine art too. He was making posters that were very popular in the ‘60s. One of them became very famous worldwide. Tom wanted to get out of the city from 14th street where he had a studio. His buddy Tony came out and read about this property that was for lease in Fort Lee. Tony came out, checked it out, told Tom about, Tom leased it, and they were in. They came over with some other hangers-on from the art world assistance. They had their girlfriends with them, a couple of models.[00:06:45] I had to make a — well, it’s a little bit complicated, but to make the story short, I had a chance meeting with Tony one day in Fort Lee, and he and a friend were walking around the streets and I gave him a lift to the castle, which was only a few blocks away, and the Castle was in its own park grounds. For the ‘60s hippie age, it was like a utopian setting. It was in its own secluded area overlooking the Hudson, and it was this big old house there. Tom was living there. He would set up a studio and I met Tony, as I said, and I gave him in his friend our lift to the Castle, and Tony invited me in. I was amazed at the setting. I was 17 and I thought this was the coolest place in the world to live in a place like this, overlooking the city and I was imagining how much fun you could have in a place. So I became friends with Tony. He wanted to go to New York City with me. Right away, we hit it off. I started going downtown with him and evenings and going to different bars and galleries and restaurants with them. I became friends with Tom Daly, the artist and the Castle was my new hangout. Suddenly without any planning, I was immersed in the art world. I was going to galleries, museums, art shows, and visiting some important artist friends of theirs in the cities who had studios in Soho and lower Manhattan. I was going to art shows, gallery openings up in like Marlborough Gallery, Emmerich gallery — places like that. [00:08:30] And Tony — I have to describe him a little. Tony was a very charismatic person. He grew up in Brooklyn. He was about 10 years older than me. He was amazingly good looking. He should have gone to Hollywood and he could have been a movie star and he had a personality that went along with the looks. I always said he could charm him the birds out of the trees. At 17, I just thought he was the greatest person I ever met. I was totally starstruck to be with Tony and to be introduced to these various friends of his and going to these venues in New York City with him. And eventually, I became good friends with Tom Daly, the artists. Tony lived on the top floor of this house, known as the Castle, and Tom Daly lived on the floor beneath him, the main rooms. They had big windows and views of the river and Manhattan and everything. And the castle was my new hangout. On the weekends, they had a lot of friends over, a lot of successful people from the city, a lot of people from Andy Warhol’s Factory where he made his movies and so on, his so-called superstars, but they had a lot of successful people, They had rock stars came out there, they had movie stars, they had poets, models, photographers —
Jordan Harbinger: [00:09:52] And you’re like, you’re a kid at this point, right?
Ken Perenyi: [00:09:55] Yeah.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:09:55] And you weren’t even doing art in school. This is just —
Ken Perenyi: [00:09:57] No.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:09:58] You just fell into this crazy crowd of artists and celebrities essentially.
Ken Perenyi: [00:10:03] Yeah. It changed my life overnight. I was so excited at what I fell into here, just a chance meeting with this guy, Tony. It was the greatest thing that ever happened to me. Growing up, I loved New York City. I was a born urbanite and I spent all my free time wandering around the city, going to Greenwich Village, Midtown. I knew the city intimately by the time I was 15 or 16 and I always dreamed — my greatest aspiration would be, could I find a place here somehow, some way. I envied the people that lived there, that worked there. I just felt inferior that I was a day tripper and I just wished I could be part of this great theater — the most exciting place in the world — but how would I ever get there? What would I ever be that could land me a job there and get an apartment and live there? Well, at 17 and finding myself with these new friends and this entirely new world that I was being introduced to, I thought maybe somehow some way this could lead to a path to New York City.[00:11:11] Now, it had a very profound effect on me to be exposed to art. I had no interest in it, but I didn’t dislike it. I thought it was fascinating. That was some time we went to some actually glamorous affairs, like a gallery opening. I was looking at paintings I didn’t quite understand, but it was exciting and I was tagging along. But what really made a difference for me was going to the Metropolitan Museum. Usually on Sunday afternoons, Tom, Tony, and maybe their girlfriends, we’d all get in a car, drive over to the city and go into Metropolitan. I think this was a turning point for me because, for the first time in my life, I was being exposed to period paintings. Tom and Tony knew a lot about them. They were sophisticated guys, and we would go in one room, we would look at maybe early French paintings, and then another room, Italian Renaissance paintings, and Dutch paintings. And after a couple of trips to the Metropol, I realized something happened inside of me and for the first time in my life, I realized I enjoyed that. That was fascinating. I was experiencing an aesthetic appreciation for these works of art, and I found myself wanting to go back to the museum by myself and spend all the time I wanted just looking at these paintings. And I did that. I did that often, and I started taking notes, writing down names of artists, and familiarizing myself with the different schools of art that I was observing in the various galleries throughout the museum.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:12:52] So how do you begin to copy paintings from the old masters? And reading your book, you came by this very naturally, it seemed intuitive for you. You obviously have it a real talent for this. I want to know what got you started, and then of course, what gets you interested ultimately then in forgery.
Ken Perenyi: [00:13:11] Right, okay. What happened was I found myself drawn to these old masters and I thought they were fascinating, and most of all, I’d have to say aesthetically beautiful. I appreciated them, but I also had a bit of a technical mind that I think I got from my father who was a great mechanic and technical type of person, and I couldn’t help myself to look at the paintings and then get closer and try to figure out. How did these artists take paint from a pallet and arrange it in such a way on a canvas to create the images that they wanted to depict? And I started studying the paintings very closely, and I would look at an arm let’s say on a figure and say, “Okay, there’s a highlight here with a light that’s hitting to illuminate the arm, and that’s kind of like pink light orange. And then it rolls over on the arm and it gets into a darker tone. And then at the bottom of the figure of the arm, it would get into a gray-brown, and it was like a one, two, three steps.” And I noticed how that was repeated on hands, arms, faces, eyes, everything. I started in a sense, you could say I was back-engineering paintings and I found that curious. It was entertaining for me to try to figure out, look at all the clever tricks they did with colors to create effects, objects, and some of them were extremely, well, many of them were extremely skilled in the way they used paint. That started, I think, something in my mind that I began to unlock the secrets of painting, whether I was even aware of it or not.[00:15:01] But anyway, I was telling my good friend Tom back at the Castle about how I made these various observations in painting, and Tom loved to pontificate about oil painting, old masters, the history of art, and he loves the idea that I was getting interested in all this. At one point, I finally told him, “Look, Tom, I think I would love to try my hand at painting. I think I really have cracked the code on a lot of these techniques.” And he had a whole box of oil paint that he wasn’t using anymore because he had moved on into other techniques. He had brushes — he gave me everything. I spent a lot of time with Tom, a lot of evenings with him, smoking pot, talking about art, having a good time. I became great buddies with both Tom and Tony. The castle became my second home in a sense. So Tom gave me everything I needed to paint. He gave me a book of art prints. There was a little print of the head of Christ by Rembrandt. I did some practice things over at my house, back home in Palisades Park. I did a lot of practicing with the paint, and then eventually I painted the picture and it came out amazingly good. I have to say so myself, I showed it to my mother. I showed it to my friends. They couldn’t believe how well I copied this print and I showed it to Tom at last. And Tom couldn’t believe his eyes, and he gave me another print and I did it again and so on. [00:16:29] He came over to my house. He wanted to see where I was painting the table. I was working. I wanted to show him the books I had. He met my mother. He told my mother that he’d never seen anything like it, and then I was on my way. I want it to fit in with my new friends. That was the thing. They were creative. They were doing exciting things in the city. They were talking about deadlines and art shows and agents and everything, and I just felt so, you know, well, of course, they were much older than me, but I think in the brashness of youth, I wanted to be liked them. I wanted to have my part there. I wanted to be creative too. I didn’t have anything else going in life. By default, I started calling myself a painter, an artist. And that was the beginning of it. I developed my skill to the point that within a year began creating my own surrealistic Hieronymus Bosch style paintings that I invented myself, and I was just billowing Tom’s mind with these wild pictures that I was dreaming up and Tom was so happy that he helped me in this. I guess you probably want to know how it went —
Jordan Harbinger: [00:17:41] Yeah, of course, because I know — look, if you’re going to paint, that’s one thing. And clearly, you had a talent for this and you’ve really got into it. You started learning techniques from books about some of these old masters — which by the way, for those who don’t know what old masters are, these are like European artists in the early 1800s. Just in case people aren’t familiar with that. But I know you started working somewhere where you could touch and handle paintings, which is important because looking at a painting is one thing but being able to feel the wood, look at the nails, look at how they make the thing. That’s a completely different level and obviously, that’s one that’s required if you’re going to forge something. I’m wondering though, like you said, how did you do and get into your first forgery because now you’re not just making a painting. You’ve got to make a painting, and then you’ve got to make it look old, and that’s a totally different ball game.
Ken Perenyi: [00:18:31] Right, I’ll explain that as economically as I can. I had a talent and it was an unrestrained, a kind of wild talent. I didn’t know what I was going to do with it. It was precocious and there was a lot to it and it was exciting. Tom even got me some jobs through art directors he knew in the city to do book jacket covers and everything. I was actually making some money. Being 17, 18 I loved old cars and this was my downfall. I was driving around. I think I was 18 now at this time. I was driving around in a broken down vintage Bentley and having a lot of fun in this old car, but it was expensive. The parts were expensive, and I was lamenting to Tom that this car was driving me crazy with repairs and I was always broke. Any money I made went into this thing, and as a lark, I think he gave me a book on art forgery. It recounted the history of a famous art forgery named van Meegeren, who worked in the 1940s and he was very successful. He created Dutch masters, cracked them, aged them, and he sold them and made a lot of money for himself. He was successful, but the book went into the basic principles of how he made forgeries, and Tom gave me this book and kind of half-jokingly said, “Read the story and maybe you could do the same thing. Maybe could make some fakes and sell them,” because Tom noted that my style of painting had the stamp of the old masters in all the technique I incorporated in everything I did. And he noted that on a number of occasions, and that’s why I think he gave me this book.[00:20:18] Well, I read the book and I took the book very seriously and I thought, “Gee, I could do this.” And I followed a lot of the techniques that were explained in this book, the basics of art forgery — how you get an old canvas or a panel, take the antique painting off that might be a very minor value, and then paint an important painting on there, and age it and crack and so on, and you have a fake. So it was very basic. Again, I guess in the brashness of youth, I followed the instructions that in the book and I made my first fake, it was a little portrait on a wooden panel. I got the panel. I scavenged a panel, I should say, from a piece of antique furniture. It was the bottom of a drawer, a thin wooden panel. I had three of them and I made three portraits similar to what I had seen in the Metropolitan and of which I bought books that had prints of — there were stoic-type portraits of like religious figures in the style of van Eyck or Memling. I painted three portraits. They were very fine. I cracked and aged according to the tricks I learned in this book.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:21:34] What kind of tricks here? Because, of course, if you crack something, there’s got to be dust in there that cracks or a little darker. They look a little different. You can’t just like bake it and then it comes out with new cracks. There’s more to it.
Ken Perenyi: [00:21:47] Yeah. Right. Baking is more of a myth that you read about or you see in movies rather than in real life but initially, I learned from this book that it is possible. It’s a long, tedious process, but you can engrave cracks in a panel with magnifying glasses on and the finest of needles. And I actually perfected a way of doing that. But it was very important, the cracks follow a certain natural pattern that occurs naturally in cracks in genuine paintings. The books I had with the prints of similar type portraits showed the patterns of the cracks very clearly, so I had a good guide to follow. I’d had magnifying glasses on. I had needles that were very specially sharpened, and I engraved the cracks in these panels now that they were only, like I say, eight by 10 inches. It took maybe a week’s work to put these cracks in. Then I learned from the book that the cracks have to be darkened in some way to simulate the debris that would collect in cracks naturally over say a hundred or two or 300 years, I made a solution of a dark brownish color and I managed to flow that into the cracks, wipe it off. And I had my crack pattern in the panels, and then I put a varnish over that I yellowed the varnish, I put dust over that, and they were beautiful. Any expert, I think would look at them and think that they were period.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:23:30] So how long did it take you to paint the portrait versus engrave the cracks? Is it like paint it in two days and then spend the next week engraving the cracks at it?
Ken Perenyi: [00:23:39] Exactly. Yeah. There was much more time in the aging and cracking process than there was in the painting. I always was a very fast painter, but I probably took about three days on the painting in different sequences — like the face, one day; the background, another; and the tunic, the figure was wearing, another day. So it was about three days of painting, and then I probably spent a week on the cracks and then another maybe week in just the varnishing, the dusting. The edges of the panel had to be the particularly treated them a certain way, so they looked like they hadn’t been rubbed and worn and everything like that. That’s the way it was. But I completed my first three paintings and I managed to sell — I picked out what I felt was the best effort out of the three. I got up the nerve to go over to the city. I took the train down to 59th Street, walked over to 57th. And on East 57th, there was a dealer that I had passed many, many times. He was a dealer in old masters and his window was always displayed with an impressive arrangement of period paintings with velvet backgrounds and drapery in the back and everything. I rang the bell, I was buzzed in and I told him I was selling a painting and he wanted to look at it and I pulled it out. I had it in an envelope. And after a very stressful hour —
Jordan Harbinger: [00:25:12] I would say, what are you sweating here? Because this guy’s an expert. He’s seen hundreds of these paintings. You bring in this thing you just made in your freaking room and you’re like, “Hey man, this old master. Got any cash?”
Ken Perenyi: [00:25:24] Yeah, right, I know. After he sat me down at a table and took the painting and started examining. I was sorry I ever walked in. I thought any minute this guy is either going to call the police and jump me and hold me there until — all kinds of things were going through my head but I knew one thing for sure, you have to be cool. Don’t show any nervousness or anything. Just sit there and let him lead. Let him do whatever he’s going to do and just sit there nonchalantly. I was good at it right from the start. I managed it. And he took the painting into another room. He was rattling. I heard bottles being rattled around. I said, “Oh my God, he’s performing tests on it.” Who knows what’s going on? He kept coming back to me and making small talk, and I’m sitting in this gallery with all this fabulous art all around me and I’m just thinking, “God, when is this going to end? Where is this?” You know, I expected them to come back and say, “Look, thanks, but I’m not so sure if we really want this.” And I figured, let me get the painting and get out of here.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:26:32] Yeah. Like run, run and forget it, right?
Ken Perenyi: [00:26:34] Yeah, exactly. I just wanted to get out of there, but he kept looking at it and examining it. He had an assistant in there, he was showing it to. Eventually, he came to me and he started talking to deal. I got my nerve up and I told them I wanted $1,000. I was looking at another painting he had on the wall there, and it was a period portrait on a wooden panel, and it was of the same period as the one I was selling him, but it was a total mess. The thing, it had been what we call all skinned out in the cleaning. It was half gone. But it was in a nice little period frame and I already knew a lot about frames and period frames from going to the Metropolitan. I liked frames and I told him, I’ll tell you, give me $1,000 and that that painting on the wall.” And he found this all very curious why I wanted to frame and everything like that. He eventually said, “I’ll give you an 800 on that painting.” And I tell him, “Okay, I had a deal,” and I had a deal, and I walked out of there with a period painting under my arm on a real period panel from the period and $800 cash, and I couldn’t believe what I did. I couldn’t believe it and I was at the beginning of it.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:27:42] You must’ve just gotten such an adrenaline rush from this. You’re basically conned this art expert. You get another painting, another frame that you can use to make another one. So clearly you had a plan to keep going if you wanted to get the other painting in the other frame, and I know at this point you’re starting to experiment with different methods to crack the canvas and the paint and all this stuff, and you started forging to pay the bills. Did you have a plan in the back of your head like, “Okay, eventually I’m going to become a real artist and I don’t have to do this.” Or was it kind of like, “Screw it, this is fun. I’m just going to forge paintings.”
Ken Perenyi: [00:28:17] Yeah, right. I made $800, which was a good shot of cash in those days.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:28:21] What year was that?
Ken Perenyi: [00:28:22] I would say 1969, I don’t have my notes here and I don’t want to be held to dates, but it was around 1969 because I took my trip to London in 1970. I took the other two paintings that I had created and I sold them to dealers on King’s Road in London for small amounts of money, like a hundred, £150. But I sold them and they thought they were period. I was thrilled. So anyway, I get back and I landed a job in New York City, and this was another big step forward for me because it was an art restoration studio down on West 21st Street. And I answered a classified ad that asked for young artists as in painters in this restoration. And I went down there and I brought one of my little copies along to show what I was capable of. And Sonny — that was the name of the man that ran this restoration studio — he hired me very quickly when he saw my artistic ability and he thought I would be ideal as what’s called an in-painter, a touch-up artist, to where damages on paintings. You have to match the paint very carefully. You have to have a very good eye to match the color of the paint and touch the paint on the damaged area so it disappears. I landed a job in the city and then after work, I’m in there for a while, I got my first studio in the city. I actually found a beautiful little studio, at number 43 Fifth Avenue, which was at 11th street and fifth. I’m living on Fifth Avenue in the Stanford white building. I mean, it’s hard to imagine today, one of the greatest landmark buildings in downtown New York, and at that time, just to give you an idea, in 1970, 71 it was dilapidated. They were renting studios and the place for $90 a month. I landed this studio and had a beautiful little terrace and French doors that opened up into the terrace and I was working in the restoration studio.[00:30:37] Now, what was so important about this was that while I was working there, I was learning as I like to term it, the anatomy of antique paintings. I was handling them every day. I was looking at the stretchers. They were mounted on the kind of canvas they were used in the various periods from the 17th century, 18th century. I saw the reflected surface of these paintings, what to expect when they would turn to different angles, the edges of the paintings. I learned everything there could about antique period paintings. So for me, this was a very important step forward, but I was making money and I was living there and everything was fine for a while, but I really did not have the kind of nature that could sustain a job for very long, and I think that was kind of unfortunate in my life. I just had to be on my own and be my own boss. Well, the job came to an end. I had a falling out with an assistant there and it didn’t work out and I went off on my own. Instead of a paycheck, I had to start relying on forgery again. In my little studio on Fifth Avenue, I started creating — I had advanced from Flemish portraits to little Dutch paintings in the style of van Goyen or van Ruysdael. Little river scenes that were also painted on panels in the 17th century, and I got some money in doing that. [00:32:12] Another important event happened within a year of that time frame. My old friend from the Castle, Tony, who was actually — I have to mention this, he came from a mafia family.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:32:26] I mean, your description of him in the book is, he’s kind of a scumbag, right? Like he’s robbing people and like taking their checks and lifting stuff from them. He’s got an edge that you wouldn’t necessarily want and all of your friends.
Ken Perenyi: [00:32:39] Yeah. Yeah. That is very true. And it is tragic about him because he had so much going for him. Yes, I would have to say that, but at the same time, he was a very exciting person. If you spent an evening with him, there was no telling who you could meet. He knew everybody. He was a very unusual person. He had these bad points about him, but how many people do you meet in your life that have the kind of entree and the kind of charisma that this guy had. It turned out he got a loft just off Union Square on Broadway, right where Broadway comes into Union Square on the North West corner there. He leased a loft above a restaurant. And I was having drinks with him at Max’s one night, and I was telling him that I didn’t look upon forgery as a career, not by any means. It was something I was doing to get money and out of desperation, and I didn’t want to keep doing that. I figured, “How many times could you do this before you’re going to get arrested or something?” But what I really wanted to do, and I was very sincere about this.[00:33:47] Through Tony, I had already been introduced to the art world movement at that time, which was abstract expressionist paintings, and that’s what the galleries were giving shows to artists that were doing stuff in this area down in Soho and so on, and uptown for the bigger name artists. I want it to be part of that movement very much. I had planned for a collection that I wanted to produce of paintings and installation sculpture creations of my own original thoughts that I had all scoped out and I had notebooks and drawings of everything I wanted to do. I was showing this to Tony and that was his world. He moved easily in that world of the contemporary art scene. There was no possibility of putting this collection together in my little studio on Fifth, so he suggested that I move in with him of Union Square in this loft, and that would give me the space to create my collection. And not only that, I would have the added advantage of having Tony help me get introductions to the right people to show my work to.
Jason DeFillippo: [00:35:12] You’re listening to The Jordan Harbinger Show with our guest, Ken Perenyi. We’ll be right back.
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Jason DeFillippo: [00:37:42] Get Xero risk-free and get a deal to boot. Try Xero risk-free at xero.com/jordan. That’s zero with an X, X-E-R-O xero.com/jordan. It’s free for the first month and also 25 percent off three months after the trial. That’s xero.com/jordan.[00:37:55] Thanks for listening and supporting the show. And to learn more and get links to all the great discounts you just heard from our amazing sponsors, visit jordanharbinger.com/deals. Don’t forget we have a worksheet for today’s episode so you can make sure you solidify your understanding of the key takeaways from Ken Perenyi. That link is in the show notes at jordanharbinger.com/podcast. If you’d like some tips on how to subscribe to the show, just go to jordanharbinger.com/subscribe. Subscribing to the show is absolutely free. It just means that you get all of the latest episodes downloaded automatically to your podcast player so you don’t miss a single thing. And now back to our show with Ken Perenyi.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:38:28] So now you’re cranking away. I mean, you’re going to antique stores and buying old 16th-century cabinet, decorative wood for like a hundred bucks. You’re keeping Dutch paintings — well, old Dutch paintings in air quotes — that you made framed and ready for sale. And you’re running around with quite the crowd. I mean, we don’t have time to get into this, but you met with Roy Cohn who’s like kind of a mafia fixer organized crime figure, and he’s having you hand envelopes to gangster looking guys. I mean, you’re like you’re going through and you’re becoming a part of the New York scene that maybe a lot of people would tell you to stay away from.
Ken Perenyi: [00:39:11] More than I could have ever have dreamt of. To make a long story short, I was putting my collection together on Union Square. I was working day and night. I would sell a fake every now and then just to keep myself alive and buy some new materials to put my collection together. But to make a long story short, I had my collection halfway done in the loft. We tried to install a bathtub in the space. There was no way to take a bath. There was only a small sink in the hall. We did a botched-up job, water soaked into the floor. We caved in the ceiling on the restaurant underneath and in the middle of winter, I was evicted from the loft with Tony, with my whole collection. I didn’t know where I was going to go. I didn’t know what to do. I was in a horrible panic. I found a space for myself up on 68th Street, just off Madison, to be precise number 35 East 68th Street. It was a grand old townhouse that had rooms to rent in it for $40 a week, and I got myself in up there. Unfortunately, I couldn’t continue the work on my grand collection of abstract impressionist collections. I had to fall back on art forgery again.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:40:30] And you meet this guy Gino in like the basement, living in the townhouse and he’s like, “Hey, I got this idea. Let’s move fake paintings to rich people where they think the mafia stole the paintings, but they’re really made by you,” and you guys are printing money here. I’m wondering, how many paintings do you think you sold? How many of your paintings are floating around old-money New York right now, and someone’s like, “Yeah, this is an old master,” and you’re sitting there going, “Nope, that’s got my handiwork written all over it.”
Ken Perenyi: [00:40:57] Well, I would say over the course of my long career, I’ve painted over 2,000 paintings. Sold them. Where they are in the world today? It would be anybody’s guess. All I could say is they all have to be somewhere and every now and then I open up a catalog or a magazine and I see one of my creations, something I may have done 20 years ago, 25 years ago, hanging above a fireplace in a magazine. So it’s kind of gratifying to see that they’ve stood the test of time.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:41:28] I want to get back to some of the techniques though, because you start learning about these American paintings that are super-hot on the market and things like this, and you’ve got a mimic the paper, the canvas, the brushstrokes, the patina, I guess the coating that forms on a painting because it’s old. The cracks are different. You can’t just engrave them. They’re slightly elevated above the wood and even the signatures. I mean, each of these things is another art form in itself because you can’t just spray it down with light brown paint and there’s the patina. You’ve got a manufacturer, like a fake UV coating that happens over time. I mean, speak to this a little bit.
Ken Perenyi: [00:42:05] Well, as time went on and I developed a very sophisticated technique in the art of forgery, I developed my own ways of cracking paintings in an absolutely natural and foolproof patternation. I developed patinas that could reflect under ultraviolet light to completely fox the experts that may examine the paintings under ultraviolet lights. I familiarized myself with all the kind of canvases that were used by the various artists, the stretchers that the canvas was stretched on, a very important point. The kind of frames that the pictures would find their way in either in the period or later on through the years. I was a storehouse of knowledge, which I still am perfecting to this day of how to create an illusion, how to create an object that is of modern origin, that could masquerade as something that was created a hundred or 200 years ago, present it to an experienced expert and that object manipulate his mind and convince him and bring him to the inevitable conclusion that the painting is genuine. That was what I perfected. I incorporated a lot of psychological components into my paintings.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:43:45] What do you mean?
Ken Perenyi: [00:43:46] Well, for instance, I noted through experience that when you presented a painting to an expert, let’s say in an auction house. One of the first things they did was turned the painting around and look at the back. They look at the front, of course, the image very quickly, and then they turn it around and they spend a lot more time looking at the back of the painting. And I finally figured out what this was all about because they say that an expert’s first impression of a painting is his most important impression. It tells him very quickly, does the painting strike his sensibilities as genuine or is there something wrong? So look at the painting first, and if you pass the tests that the painting looks aesthetically and artistically correct, he turns it over and he looks at the back of the painting because of the back of the painting has a wealth of forensic markers or clues that hold an entire history and entire story for the seasoned expert. And I figured out through experience what it was that he was looking for little stamps that were on there with numbers on them, chalk marks that might indicate that it was once booked into an auction house, maybe years ago. I oxidized the canvas and the stretcher to perfection. All methods I developed myself. I even splattered like little spots of white paint around and smear to them a little because white paint finds itself on the back of almost everything. I couldn’t watch his eyes and almost read his mind as he noted all these little, what I call forensic telltale markers on the back of the painting. You are actually creating subconscious signals to him that everything he’s looking at is the genuine article. The back of the painting is extremely important. And that was part of my work. That was part of what I perfected.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:45:55] This is like you have to look at the painting almost like a detective or somebody who’s inspecting it to decide whether it’s real. You have to look at this and go, “What would be here if this painting were real? What would be missing if it weren’t?” And then you have to mimic those things that would be missing, such as the white paint. Kind of like, “Oh, well, this is where the artist handled this when he was putting a coat of white paint on it. There was a dollop on the table. He set it down on the table. There was a dollop on the back now like that’s just the way normal paintings were back in the day because you didn’t have all the –” I mean, you have to think about all of that. You have to study the technique of the original artists.
Ken Perenyi: [00:46:31] Correct.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:46:32] So that you can create original pieces. You can’t just create replicas of existing pieces. You have to study the actual technique of the artist.
Ken Perenyi: [00:46:39] Yes, indeed. I mean, this is so involved. Sometimes you can make a replica, a copy of a painting, because as I go into detail in my book, the artist himself made several copies. Some artists made many copies of the same painting, and I always said in cases like that, there’s always room for one more. Why not? That was an easy thing to do, but sometimes you have to create an entirely new painting in the style of the artists, and I always said, a fake has to be above all logical. And what I used to do was when I targeted particular artists for my work, I did a lot of research. I spent a lot of money on books on that particular artist. I would cut out every print that was significant to my work out of the book and throw the book away. I got large sheets of foam board and I created what I called a visual flow chart of the artist’s work. So I could see the evolution of his work in one glance, and I would look for an area in that evolution where I could create another painting that would be on that same wavelength. That would have the same characteristics so that an expert could look at it and logically place that painting in a certain time and place in the artist’s work. And that takes a lot of research and a lot of contemplation and study. That’s what success is all about. I always said that if you want to fool an expert, you have to have all the knowledge that the expert has and more to be able to make a high-class fake and sell it. And that’s what I did.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:48:30] You have to use these old frames and boards and remove the original art so they don’t have the underlying details of another painting. And I’m amazed at this, and I know you started flying to New York and London, and you’re really kind of living this crazy, highfalutin lifestyle in a lot of ways, and you’re selling these forgeries hand over foot in different cities. In fact, one of the things that I was laughing about when I was reading the book is your sort of degenerate buddies. They’re going to Boston, they’re going to Miami, and they’re saying, “Send me with some paintings. Send me with some paintings,” and they’re sometimes not sending you the money back, but not often times they are sending you the money back. And you’ve got this distribution network. What I thought was particularly interesting to me was you started restoring paintings as a legitimate cover for the forgery, which also made good money. And it just sort of brings up the natural question, why not simply restore paintings to make money? You said you were swamped with work. It’s legal. You don’t have to worry about the FBI crawling down your back. Why not just restore the paintings? It was just a thrill to make the forgeries, huh?
Ken Perenyi: [00:49:35] Yeah. I’m crazy. That’s why the only answer is. For that, I needed a good psychiatrist. I was addicted to the intoxicating thrill of creating modern paintings that looked antique and selling them. It was exciting. It was thrilling. It was like living in a movie and the money was fast. I had friends in New York, we would go out on the town. It was an addictive life form. Yeah, I could have just been successful running a great art restoration studio. But I would say that later on in my career, I became a solo act. I got rid of the crazies. I didn’t phone paintings out anymore to anyone. I became my one-man operation and I was very effective. That’s when I was doing my best work and I enjoyed life. I have to say that I had total freedom, lots of money. And I enjoyed sitting at cafes in London and watching the world go by, checking that my investments in the stock market, and traveling around London — the Cotswolds, going to restaurants, taking people out, hobnobbing with, uh, friends and society. I was living a very good life for a very long time. But yes, I could have had a nice legitimate career, but I think I was a bit of an adventurer and that could be addictive.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:51:00] I can imagine, yeah. Going back to the actual forgery technique. You said, “I didn’t want to imitate the effect of aging and paintings. I want to duplicate the effects of aging.” The aging is real. It’s not just artificial aging. You’re just accelerating the aging. That’s an important difference, and I would love to highlight why, because I think you get caught when you’re just imitating aging, but if you’re duplicating aging, man, it’s got to be a lot harder.
Ken Perenyi: [00:51:26] Yeah. I would venture to say that I’ve probably developed on my own the processes that are the closest thing you could come to actual aging because — as you said, I’ve created methods that actually accelerate the aging process. It can’t get more perfect than that. What are the most difficult challenges for any art forger of period paintings, of which, I don’t know how many of them exist anymore in the world, is how to create cracking and painting? That is one of the great conundrums in art forgery through the ages because cracking, when you look at it and say, “Well, okay, they cracked. Well, how do they crack?” They cracked because the various strata of materials that are built up in an oil painting, you got canvas, you’ve got gesso, you got oil paint, and you got varnish. You got. four different strata of materials that are all expanding and contracting at different rates over a long period of time. So stresses are building up, just like in the tectonic plates in the earth. Eventually, those stresses release and cracks form like an earthquake. But here’s the thing, when they crack, they crack in characteristic patterns. Now granted, you could make artificial cracks appear in almost anything, but they’re going to be artificial. They’re not going to crack in what we call characteristic natural patterns that an expert is so used to seeing in period paintings. The challenge to an art forger — and you have to be a bit of a scientist in this — how do you make a painting crack and crack naturally. Sure, you could crack them artificially, but that’s not going to fool any expert. I developed ways through a lot of experimentation and a bit of ingenuity. I created patterns that were just perfection, and that went a long way in launching successful fakes in the salesrooms.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:53:35] I know that one way in which you had — this is particularly genius — you had to add a patina to the painting. Not too dark because people will try to clean it and that would break them down and mark them as fake, because of the drying time of oil paint. And once you start using solvents on old paint, no big deal. On new paint, it’s like, why is this paint dissolving, right?
Ken Perenyi: [00:53:51] Yes.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:53:51] But then you add a light patina so that nobody will try to clean it. It doesn’t need cleaning, but it still looks old. So you have to think, “Okay, what would I do if I bought this? I’d clean it. All right. It’s too dark. What would I do if I bought this? Well, it looks suspiciously clean.” So you have to find that middle ground where somebody won’t try to clean it but will also believe that it’s old.
Ken Perenyi: [00:54:13] Correct. I had to hit that balance, so that’s exactly it. A little patina enhances a painting, but too much is going to send the painting to the restorer and get a cleaning, and that could be a problem. I had to think strategically, how do I present this painting so that it just gets sold. It gets put up on somebody’s wall and is appreciated. I must say that the people that collect and invest in paintings in the high-end market, the big galleries on light Duke Street in London or Madison Avenue. They’re not looking for an excuse to send a painting to an art restorer because with art restorer, it’s expensive. You never really know what you’re going to find when you restore a painting. So you want to try and find something that’s in good viewable condition in the first place, and it just goes up on your wall and that’s it. So I had that in my favor. But there were times where I indulged in some scientific hijinx on a painting where I put a lot of patina on an eye, tried to fool all the scientific tests and everything with mixed results.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:55:30] One of those was particularly funny. I actually wrote this down. You’re restoring paintings and you’re taking off the old varnish because it’s got this sort of weird dark hue. And instead of dumping it out like you would because it’s old and garbage and you’re going to put a new varnish on there, you’re keeping this stuff and putting it on the forgeries. So the old varnish is sort of being dissolved and then put on the new forgeries. The reason that that’s important apparently is, I guess old varnish that’s 100, 200 years old glows a certain way under UV. You actually needed the old varnish from the restored paintings to put on top of the forgeries so that they looked old under a UV light, and that’s just one of many steps that you took to make sure that these things held up under really close scrutiny.
Ken Perenyi: [00:56:14] Precisely, and that was one of my greatest Eureka moments. It just happened accidentally. A lot of art dealers were using these UV lights and experts, even at Sotheby’s and Christie’s, to examine a painting under the light, and if they soar a certain reflective glow, a characteristic greenish glow, it signified that the varnish that they were examining was at least a 100 or 150 years old because new varnish cannot reflect like that. So I was cleaning paintings one day, real period paintings on a table in my a restoration studio. Some of that antique varnish had puddled off to the side on the work table. It had kind of like drained off of the swabs that I was using for the cleaning. And then I was examining the painting under a UV light to make sure that I had removed all of the discolored antique varnishes from the painting I was working on. And all of a sudden, as I swung the light over, I noticed the swabs and the little puddle of varnish that I had removed reflected that yellow-greenish hue that you see on the surface of the period paintings, and I thought, great. Why don’t I just ring this stuff out, filter it a bit, and then mix it in with some synthetic varnish to give it somebody and I’ll respray this stuff all over my forgeries and I’ll have the most foolproof patina in the world? It was a great moment.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:57:52] At some point, New York City just starts filling up with your fakes. I mean, you’re seeing these all over. You’d sell it in Miami and it’d show up in New York. He’d sell it in Boston and it would show up in New York and mafia owned galleries end up buying these and they’re like, “Wait. This is fake?” And now they’re looking for you. Every auction catalog has your fakes. The heat is on, man. What are you thinking at that point?
Ken Perenyi: [00:58:16] Well, that was going back a ways. That’s around 1980 when I wasn’t experienced enough and Tony was selling my paintings like hotcakes, all over New York City to big galleries too, by the way. We flooded the market with my paintings and then all of a sudden one thing led to another. The FBI got onto it and Tony was hauled in. I had to shut down, of course, when I got wind to this. It was a very frightening time. I was expecting Tony to confess or something and I would get arrested and everything, but Tony didn’t. He was a standup guy. He was used to the sort of thing. He made up stories. He found them here. He found prove otherwise. It took like a year for things to cool down, but we got through that and I survived it. That was the first close call that was 1980. I had sold a painting to a mafia owned gallery. I had to mafia looking for me at the same time. It was a very frightening chapter in my life. I described that in my book, but it all cooled down and nothing happened.[00:59:26] Luckily, I had a lot of money saved up. I went to London and I started operating in a completely different area, in a completely different school of art. That was 18th- and 19th-century British paintings. I figured I’m far away from New York, a year has gone by. That’s all now old, the investigation and everything. And for the next couple of decades, I was selling paintings in London, British painting, sporting equestrian paintings, British Marine paintings, and having great success in the salesrooms over there, Sotheby’s Christie’s, Phillips. I used every auction house in Britain, and then eventually I started putting paintings back in New York City again when the coast was clear many years later. Towards the latter part of my career, I was selling paintings simultaneously in London, New York, Washington DC. I sold a lot of paintings in auction houses in Washington. I had checks flying in from all directions.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:00:26] I know you went to London to lay-low, and in the book, you say, “I went to Christie’s — the auction house — and read their guarantee and it was an invitation to do business.” What do you mean? What was with Christie’s auction house guarantee that was like a forger’s dream?
Ken Perenyi: [01:00:41] Yeah, the average person, you think, well, you go into an auction house like Sotheby’s or Christie’s, and you kind of assume that if it’s sold in such a prestigious establishment, naturally it’s going to be the genuine article, and I have to say for the most part it is. However, when you read the fine print in the back of the catalog, it’s usually listed as conditions of sales. There are a number of clauses, paragraphs, disclaimers. If you read one paragraph — these numbered paragraphs — one after the other. They’re saying, and so many words that day, don’t guarantee that the painting is by the artists that it’s listed as they don’t guarantee and authenticity of the painting. They have various degrees of classifications that you have to be aware of in the catalogs that are signified by little code symbols that are hidden there next to the painting, that the average person would overlook. These little symbols may mean that they think it’s signed by the artist or it might not be signed by the artist or that it has a superfluous signature.[01:01:59] I said to myself, after reading all these disclaimers, I said, “My God, if you read everything on these pages, two pages of disclaimers here, basically they’re stating that they’re not guaranteeing the authenticity of anything they sell here.” I said, “This is like an open invitation to put fakes into the salesroom.” What more could I possibly ask for?
Jordan Harbinger: [01:02:24] Yeah, that’s crazy. So basically they just say, “Hey, by the way, this may or may not be real. And if it’s not, well, you’re out of luck and we’re not going to go look for it because we made our money.” So you’re thinking, “Wow, they’re basically my accomplice at this point.”
Ken Perenyi: [01:02:36] Yes, precisely and the only thing that they really give comfort to the prospective buyer is that if you discover the painting you purchased to be a fake and you could prove it to them scientifically, they’ll be happy to give you a refund within five years. I said, what could be better?
Jordan Harbinger: [01:02:57] Five years? That’s insane.
Ken Perenyi: [01:03:03] It was a joke. I said, “Man, I got to get into business here. This is just too good.” You know? I started putting paintings into the salesrooms in London. I guess you could say on a wholesale basis.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:03:18] That’s so ridiculous. What a racket that is. I just can’t even believe it. I was going to ask you some sort of mundane question like how do you decide what to paint, but this is just too good with the auction house. I mean, do you have to have had a whole smuggling operation where you creating the paintings in Britain as well, or are you smuggling them from the United States over there?
Ken Perenyi: [01:03:40] I painted some of my first British paintings in England. I was staying in an apartment in the Royal Crescent in Bath. I was painting a few there, some of what I would call my prototypes, but I’m really to go into high gear. I wasn’t equipped over there to really go into production. So I came back to America here and I started producing British 18th- and 19th-century British paintings. At first, I would put them in suitcases and take the risk of flying over with maybe two huge suitcases going right through customs and just hoping that I wasn’t one of the random picks for a bag gets searched. Sometimes I had the paintings disassembled. The canvases all rolled up in the stretches broken down in duffle bags, and I would come in with a couple of duffle bags and assemble them in a rooming house hotel that I used a lot. They knew me, they gave me a nice room and everything where I could work and put them all together and distribute them around London at my leisure. So it was a smuggling operation, but for me, that just added to the risk that I seem to be addicted to.[01:04:54] But eventually I wisened up and I said, why go through all this unnecessary stress of flying over there with suitcases full of paintings? I just sent pictures of the paintings to the auction houses in London. They said, “Sure, great. Ship them over and we’ll be happy to sell them.” So I just got hooked up with UPS and Federal Express and crated the paintings and everything and I was just airfreighting them over there.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:05:20] Unbelievable. I would imagine you must have spent a huge amount of time trying to find old frames, old canvas. You’re going antique markets and things like that. I mean, didn’t anyone spot you buying all the old stuff or it was just, did you wear disguises? I mean, how did you avoid being the guy who buys all the old junk and then suddenly comes back with a fancy — ?
Ken Perenyi: [01:05:40] Oh, that was easy. No, you wouldn’t be suspicious from going in antique shops and buying old paintings and frames. I mean, there are a million shops you could go and buy stuff. And then also I describe in my book a picker –a professional antique dealer — brought me truckloads of frames. He knew what I wanted, he knew what I did actually, and he traveled up and down the East Coast doing antique shows and everything, and he knew exactly what I wanted. He would bring me a dozen frames at a time or a dozen old 19th-century paintings that were of no value whatsoever that I could cannibalize and reconstitute into great fakes. Eventually, I have to say, I developed a method where I created entirely fabulous fakes that went right into Sotheby’s and Christie’s, made up of entirely new materials, including the stretchers, the canvas, everything. I got so good at perfecting methods of aging, even wood for the stretchers and oxidizing the backs of the canvases. Everything from the keys to the stretchers to the canvas, to the edges of the canvas of the painting, which is very important and examined very closely by the experts. I got so good at the methods of creating age and patinas and oxidation that I was able to create fakes out of entirely brand new materials.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:07:05] Wow. You weren’t even limited by the supply because you had the technique to overcome that particular limitation. There was something called a relining. It seems like this changed the forgery game yet again, in part because you could use all new materials and then you could smuggle these larger paintings into Britain by rolling them up and then stretching them onto canvas when you got there. Can you explain what relining actually is?
Ken Perenyi: [01:07:31] Sure, yeah. It’s a very important procedure that all experts and collectors all familiar with. Relining, I liken it in my book as the resoling of a shoe, an antique canvas, a period painting in time, the canvas could become wobbly. It could create what we call a belly, where it could bulge out or bulge inward, and it disturbs the viewing of the painting. It could have what we call puckers in them, dense and so on. So what was developed? A method was developed many, many years ago, even a hundred years ago, they would lining paintings with. They take the original painting and around the edge of the canvas, they cut it off of the original stretcher. They put it face down on a table. They take a brand new canvas and put it over the back of the original painting and through various adhesives, mostly in the old days, they used beeswax. They would glue the new canvas down over the back of the original antique painting and use hot irons to iron it down and make the whole painting flat again, so it’s like sandwiched down there. Then they can flap it back over, face up. It would be perfectly flat and get remounted either on a new stretcher or on the original stretcher. And then the painting is nice and flat and it’s more pleasing to view it that way. And 99 percent of all paintings that you see in a museum or in a high-end gallery have been relined.[01:09:17] But I have to point out, many times, paintings were relined a hundred years ago at the turn of the century where they invented a process known as a screw-press relining, which makes a very flat relining in sort of like a giant book press, and it has a characteristic look to it. And I perfected a way of mimicking that kind of a relining so that I could incorporate that on my own fakes. So when I presented one of my creations, say a 19th-century British Marine painting to an expert at Sotheby’s or Christie’s, they could turn it around, look at the back of it, and they would see immediately this painting was relined, but it was relined a very long time ago, probably like at the turn of the century. It obviously has the characteristics of a screw-press relining never dreaming that I had perfected a way of mimicking that appearance. So that all the more lent credence to the genuineness of the painting because who would ever think anybody could duplicate a screw-press relining.
Jason DeFillippo: [01:10:31] You’re listening to The Jordan Harbinger Show with our guest, Ken Perenyi. We’ll be right back after this.
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Jordan Harbinger: [01:15:45] So you’ve got these techniques that allow you to make old paintings out of entirely new materials. I know that you said you took some of your work to framers. Didn’t any of them notice you’re coming in with like dozens of pieces of expensive, super old, centuries-old art? Aren’t these framers like, “Hey, you’re kind of coming in with a lot of stuff that is kind of a big deal. Who are you?”
Ken Perenyi: [01:16:05] Well, it wasn’t exactly that way. I spent a great deal of money purchasing period frames, especially in London. I knew all the dealers. They all knew me. I used to buy fine period frames because I was making a lot of money then. And I would have them shipped back to America here. Now, I did have a dealer in London that did know what I did, and he helped me a fit up period frames on my creations, and then I would just walk them over to Sotheby’s or Christie’s and booked them into a sale. But generally, I was buying them from the dealers they are and just having them shipped back to America. Then I also bought framing material from some of the best frame makers in New York City. Now, these were new reproduction period frames. There are some high-end dealers in New York City that made very fine museum-grade reproduction. I would have them shipped down to my studio in Florida and I would fit them into my fakes.[01:17:08] Now that is, you might say, “Well, you’re not putting an antique frame on your fake, so you know what’s going on here?” Well, that was fine because a lot of antique paintings find themselves in a high-end reproduction frame because the original frame was lost or destroyed or whatever. So that was what I called my Madison Venue presentation where I would take a really fine reproduction frame — I mean, really good museum quality and put my fake in it. And that also added to the psychological acceptance as I walked into Sotheby’s, “Oh, I had it framed by APF or one of these high-end dealers.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:17:46] I know you had some tricks as well, so that auction houses and restorers couldn’t do their work quickly enough to discover the forgery. One of those techniques was injecting a lacquer to glue the painting to the stretcher. It’s kind of like throwing a hurdle in front of somebody who’s running at you. They’re looking at the painting and it’s like, “Well, we can figure out if this is real by taking the painting off the stretcher. Ooh, it’s glued to the stretcher. This is going to ruin the paint. It’s going to take a lot more work. Let’s just put it up for sale.”
Ken Perenyi: [01:18:11] Right. You know, I was always worried about possible cleaning because that would be a problem. Normal oil paint takes about 25 years to become insoluble, so it could be cleaned with acetone and not breakdown. However, paint that was only maybe a year or less old, and if it was cleaned, it would start dissolving in a cleaning. But I have to say that I also was developing a new type of what I called a barrier coat, and it was a form of what’s known commercially as a catalyzed lacquer coating. It’s clear and it’s extremely hard. And when it cures after say a month or so. It’s very difficult to breakdown even with acetone. I had developed a special spraying apparatus because it’s very toxic, this stuff. You have to get it through a commercial supply house. I was spraying, coating my fakes with this catalyzed lacquer and then putting a patina over that. And that would go a long way to protecting the paint against a possible cleaning with acetone. The painting that you’re referring to with the bead of epoxy glue to a sense weld the canvas onto the stretcher so they couldn’t be separated, which is necessary for proper cleaning. That was incorporated into one of my greatest fakes. It was a very rare painting that I composed in the style of Martin Johnson Heade of Passion Flowers and Hummingbirds, and that was an extraordinary painting and it was a beautiful fake, an extraordinary piece of work.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:20:00] I love the idea that you had to forge even the most minute details. One thing that stands out is this aged paintings. They include fly droppings. Why are flies attracted to paintings? How did you even figure that out? And then how do you replicate fly droppings on an old painting.
Ken Perenyi: [01:20:19] It’s a good question. That was another point that I observed in Sonny’s restoration studio and that’s why that job was so valuable to me. While I worked at Sonny, often paintings come in with all these little black elevated spots, especially around the perimeters of the painting. I would never have known what they were. They look like little black nubs the size of a safety pin, very tiny and they were elevated. Sonny explained to me that those are the droppings of house flies and the reason they accumulate on paintings and seem to have concentrated around the perimeters — first of all, antique varnish, real period varnish from the old days has a lot of sugar content in it. When paintings were stored in old attics or barns or in unprotected places where flies could get to them, flies are drawn to the surface of period paintings because of the sugar. They wanted to somehow dissolve or eat or something, and they leave behind these droppings. And there are paintings that come in with thousands, thousands of these droppings all over him. And the problem with the droppings is they’re insoluble, they’re rock hard, and they’re very tiny. You have to get the sharp end of an X-Acto blade — a scalpel — and you have to chip each one off and they pop off. You could work sometime for days removing these tiny little spots all over there.[01:22:07] So I thought, what a great touch to put on my paintings. I could duplicate them by making them up out of epoxy glue with powdered pigment in it and dipping a needle into the glue and then touching the tip of the needle onto the paint, pulling the needle away. And I got a perfect little tiny nub that duplicates the fly dropping perfectly. But is it a fly droppings also occur in strange characteristic clusters. So I had to be aware of that patternation and duplicate that in the way I arranged the spots, the artificial spots of epoxy flyspecks.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:22:51] That’s funny. So it’s not just random flyspecks. Flies happened to poop in a specific pattern and you’ve got to apply the fake fly droppings made out of epoxy or something in that same pattern or those even look fake. How are you applying these manually? It sounds so tedious at how many fly droppings are on one painting.
Ken Perenyi: [01:23:10] Well, I mean, there were paintings and only have a few of them on. But like I say, there are paintings where they’re just all over the place. So I would put maybe a hundred or a couple hundred on there to take the time to do that. I didn’t want to overdo it but I would add them on here and there, depending on the painting and how aged I wanted to make it look.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:23:32] Unbelievable. Yeah. I know you refused to prop up your paintings with false documentation. Why draw the line at forging documents as opposed to forging the art itself?
Ken Perenyi: [01:23:41] I think it was a vanity on my part. My approach was I did not want to walk into galleries or auction houses and tell them what I had. I guess you could say I took a perverse pleasure in presenting the painting and have the expert explained to me what the painting was. I delighted in standing there and being enlightened by the expert and having him or her display to me. They’re a great knowledge as a historian and art expert of who this artist was that painted this picture and where it came from. I would stand there and act like I was so delighted and surprised that they could identify this. And is it worth anything? That was just part of my approach and I felt I also wanted this painting to stand up on its own merits as a work of art. So I also prided myself on creating beautiful paintings. That the artist himself would be proud to have created.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:24:02] Did you ever feel like the artist himself in a way? I mean, at some point you’re creating their art more skillfully than they even then. They did probably. I mean, do you think you innovated like the actual artists would have if they were still around.
Ken Perenyi: [01:25:17] Oh yes. I’m convinced of that. I believe that certain artists, like Martin Johnson Heade — the American painter, James E. Buttersworth — the famous American Marine painter — I believe they would shake my hand today if they could come back from the grave to see how I carried on their work. Created new works in this style and I might say created works when they were at the peak of their artistic abilities. And I could also name some British painters as well, whose work I mastered to perfection.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:25:53] How did the FBI start catching onto you? I mean, at this point you’ve sold a lot. You’ve got, I think you said you had like $1 million in cash stash somewhere. You sold one painting for 717,000. Were you able to hang on to that? And where are you keeping this cash under the mattress? I mean, what’s going on?
Ken Perenyi: [01:26:10] Well, I, at one point, had a safe in my house and at one point had over a million dollars cash in the safe. It was always, I guess, kind of a fantasy that I had growing up that one day I would have a million dollars in a safe in my house and I fulfilled that. It was in the ’90s I was doing very, very good. I was selling pictures in London and New York, and money was pouring in and I had sold this Martin Johnson Heade for over $700,000 and all was well. I swept out accounts, cashed in a lot of checks and so on, and kept the cash in a safe in my house.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:26:52] How did the FBI start catching on to you?
Ken Perenyi: [01:26:56] Oh boy. That was all my own fault. It was ridiculous. I was living with a girlfriend up in New York City, and I had my place in Florida too, where I worked my secret hideaway where I could be at peace and work in solitude but I had this girlfriend up in the village up in New York City. And I gave her paintings as gifts, and she took a painting that was remarkably similar to a James E. Buttersworth, a beautiful little Marine painting, beautiful painting. And I gave her one as a gift, but it was remarkably similar to one I had sold at Sotheby’s maybe a couple of years before. She knew she shouldn’t ever try to sell the paintings, and I didn’t believe or suspected that she ever would try, but for some reason and she didn’t need money. I don’t know why she went to London and took the Buttersworth I had given her and she booked it into a sale at Barnum’s I think it was. Unfortunately, it was regarded as such a fine example of Buttersworth. They used it as a promotional postcard for this Marine painting sale they were having. It went all over the place. Everybody that collects Marine painting got one of these postcards and whoever bought the painting that I originally put at Sotheby’s before must have gotten the postcard and said, “My God, this is exactly the same painting I bought at Sotheby’s and paid 10 and 15 times more. Something’s got to be wrong.” They called the FBI. Then the dominoes started falling and eventually the FBI led to my door.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:28:31] But they never actually got you.
Ken Perenyi: [01:28:33] I was never indicted. I have a perfect record to this day, I’ve never been indicted for anything. I came under an investigation. I was the target of an investigation for five long years. They uncovered a mountain of evidence — incriminating evidence against me. They had my foreign bank accounts, they had auction catalogs, they had records from Christie’s and Sotheby’s of sales, but in the end, it was shut down, closed down, and it all went away. That was over five years and that’s documented.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:29:13] Why did it go away? Why did you never get indicted? How are we having this conversation?
Ken Perenyi: [01:29:20] I guess it’s the greatest story of all in this saga. I would say the sale of the painting that was nicknamed Fatboy in my book. That was the Martin Johnson Heade, passion flower painting. I believe it was the sale of that painting, which could have put me away probably for 10 years. I believe it was the sale of that painting that ironically saved me from indictment a few years after that sale took place. And the reason I say that was one, that painting got sold. As I described in my book, it was within a year that painting was revealed as a fake. I found that out because a rumor was circulating among the grapevine of the art world that a very important Martin Johnson Heade that was sold a year ago disintegrated during restoration. I knew right away that was my painting, but rumors like that, I’ve never heard of rumors like that ever getting out on the street because if something like that really happened, it would be covered up immediately. The restoration studio could be ruined if something like that came out. It was just very unusual and disintegrated. Paintings don’t disintegrate and then I realized that painting was destroyed. I knew I read between the lines, they found out it was a fake and they destroyed it and most telling of all, they never asked me for the money back.[01:30:53] So I realized, aha, the whole thing was uncovered and they had to cover it up because it was purchased by one of the most important collectors in the art world. Richard Manoogian, who has the most important collection of Martin Johnson Heade’s in the world, and it was published that he was the purchaser of that painting.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:31:14] Just to clarify this. So they uncovered it. They were embarrassed and they said, “Well, either our entire business is ruined globally, or we eat the 717,000 refunded to the purchaser, never buy from Ken Perenyi again and be more careful next time and not cooperate with the FBI,” which tanked their investigation, letting you walk. Is that what you think happened?
Ken Perenyi: [01:31:37] Precisely, right, yeah, but there’s more to it. You see, I didn’t come under investigation after that incident. I still continued in my career and Sotheby’s still sold paintings after that. However, it was about two years after that was when this girl had created this problem with the Buttersworth, and that’s what brought the FBI into the picture. Now, when the FBI started investigating me through her, of course, she talked to them one day, approached her and wanted to know where she got the painting. When the FBI got into the picture, they certainly went to Sotheby’s and when Sotheby’s was approached by the FBI, they must’ve had a heart attack and said, “Oh my God, how are we going to explain what happened with Ken Perenyi on that painting two years ago? And how we covered that up?” I know I’m speculating here, but they had to, so they had to, at this point, something else happened at Sotheby’s that was very significant, and that was Alfred Taubman, the CEO, was also under a federal investigation. By the way, my investigation and his investigation was being conducted by the Southern District, the US attorney’s Office of the Southern District of Manhattan. And he was being investigated by a price, rigging commissions, sale commissions with his counterpart at Christie’s, and that is highly illegal. It’s a federal crime, a very serious one. That was getting out publicly because there’s a lot of people involved in that, and that was getting out publicly.[01:33:17] However, my situation, nobody ever heard of me or this investigation, and it was quite, it was on the QT. So at that time, my investigation strung on for five years. Alfred Taubman was in the middle of my investigating, sometime in the middle of it. Alfred Taubman was eventually Indicted, convicted, and went to prison for a year. My investigation continued until the statute of limitations expired and it ended and it was over, and I never heard, thankfully never heard or heard about it again.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:33:57] That must’ve been a relaxing night the day after it ended and you just realized you’d gotten away with it for — How long 20, 30 years?
Ken Perenyi: [01:34:05] Yes, it was a time I would not forget. I lived in a state of euphoria for a year when it was finally over, and I had just become a parent too because I had adopted a young girl from Africa where a lot of the money that I had in my safe was spent to get her out of Africa. I saw her one night on a 60-minute program. She was taken from her parents. She was made into a slave, and I took it upon myself to go over there and get her extra cater from that situation, but that was before the investigation started too. So I was a newly minted parent when I came under this investigation and I was under the stress of being a parent to support my child and worrying about whether I was going to be indicted, but I would have to say that I was told after my book came out, years later, now, many years later, I wrote my memoir and it came out. And when my book came out, I had been contacted by many people in the art world and one person who was a real insider who called me up anonymously. He said, “Ken, I loved your book. I read your story and I want to tell you this is the story of what happened behind the scenes in that investigation.” And that was that Alfred Taubman knew about the situation, and even though there was nothing he could do to save himself in his problem. Alfred Taubman was a billionaire. He was a billionaire tycoon. He purchased Sotheby’s. He was a CEO and the head of Sotheby’s. He knew that if I had gotten indicted, it would have been an unmitigated disaster for Sotheby’s because it would’ve went right back to the painting that Martin Johnson Heade. And what happened back there? Why did they not call the police or whatever? It was there and it would have been a disaster. I was told he called in a favor of political favor and the investigation went away.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:36:11] Wow. Unbelievable luck there, I think. And chess moves on your part. What do you do now? I think a lot of people are going to go, what does a retired maybe retired art forger do now?
Ken Perenyi: [01:36:22] Well, I would say the added irony to the story was that I never stopped creating fakes even while I was under the investigation because the defense I took to the FBI was that, well, I reproduce, I make copies. That’s what I do. I sell copies to decorators and so on, and I’m doing it — I guess there was no use trying to deny that I didn’t paint period pictures. I never stopped creating fakes even while I was under the investigation, except that I stopped putting in the salesrooms that you can be sure but to this day, I’m still creating what I consider the most deceptive fakes in the world. My methods have never been more perfected and they are now, and I sell them to collectors and people that want fabulous decorative paintings for their homes or their various homes. But of course, they’re sold for what they are and that is high-class fakes. There’s no law against, as long as they had disclosed for what they are. It doesn’t matter even if they bear the signature of the artist’s done, no matter how fine or how deceptive they are, it’s perfectly legal. And that’s what I do today.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:37:37] And we’ll link to that in the show notes as well as the book. So do you mean to tell me, I could send you, let’s say a photograph of myself and say, make me this but make it from 1800-van-Gogh edition or something like that, and it would come back to me as a very, very official, legitimate-looking 1800 oil paint?
Ken Perenyi: [01:37:59] I could do that. But I really don’t take commissions except in very rare circumstances. And for let’s say the uber-rich, I might consider certain things like that, but generally speaking, I’m too engrossed in my own artists that I choose to emulate, and that’s what consumes my life. I love what I do. It’s my great passion and love in life, and I carry on the work. Of the painters that I have copied and learned to imitate all my life, and I carry on for them because unfortunately, they’re not in a position to paint anymore themselves.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:38:47] Ken, thank you so much. This was very, very interesting and I appreciate your time and your openness.
Ken Perenyi: [01:38:50] Thank you very much. It’s been a great pleasure.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:38:55] Oh my God, I love this episode, man, after the show was just one thing after another. He goes to art fairs. He’s taken photos of how to study brushstrokes and things from the artists, these techniques from the artists. Unbelievable, he just learned it all by looking, learned it all through trial and error, just as genius when it comes to forgery. Unbelievable. I asked him how he decides what to paint, and he said that he’s limited by the subjects that the actual artists, the original artists, that he’s imitating, are interested in. Because if they usually paint boats, you don’t go paint a lion or a giraffe or something, it just doesn’t make sense. So you’re kind of working within these constraints, which he finds challenging and interesting. He, later on, invented a completely new artist. He invented an alter ego so he could control the market for this artist’s painting as supposed to be an artist that was more or less undiscovered from, I don’t know, a hundred 150 years ago.[01:39:45] He has a fake scholar discover him, and then all these other fake experts are feeding them into the market. It’s just unbelievable. The lengths of which he went. If he had done any other business, he would have been successful if he’d put in this amount of effort, but he chose to forge so fascinating. He’s got photographs of all his fakes and will eventually put them in a book to prove that all the works he created are not originals from the artist. He said it’s going to be like an atom bomb in the art world. And he said he might wait until he actually passes away to release it because he doesn’t want to deal with the blowback. So I don’t know what I think about that. He still sees his work pop up in catalogs when collectors pass away and they go up for auction, and he knows which ones are his because they’re all original designs. They’re all made up by him and the style of a particular artist. God, he got away with it. Unbelievable. Got away with it. Great. Big thank you to Ken Perenyi. The book title is Caveat Emptor. Great title for somebody who wrote a book about forgery and selling forgeries. [01:40:45] Links to that will be in the show notes. There are also worksheets for each episode, including this one, so you can review what you’ve learned here from Ken Perenyi and no, we’re not teaching you about forgery in the worksheets. But the worksheets are at jordanharbinger.com in the show notes and we have transcripts now for each episode and those can be found in the show notes as well. We’re teaching you how to connect with great people and manage relationships using systems and tiny habits over at Six-Minute Networking. That’s our free course over at jordanharbinger.com/course. Don’t do it later cause you’re not going to do it later anyway. Don’t kick the can down the road. Don’t procrastinate. Look, you need to know this. It’s foundational. Dig the well before you get thirsty. Because if you reach out when you need something, I’m hanging up on you. These drills are designed to take just a few minutes per day. This is the stuff I wish I knew 20 years ago. It is not fluff and there’s no upsell. Just go do it. Stop being a lazy bum, jordanharbinger.com/course. Most of the guests on the show actually subscribed to the course and the newsletter, so come join us, and you’ll be in some great companies — some smart company anyway. Speaking of building relationships, you can always reach out and or follow me on social. I’m at @JordanHarbinger on both Twitter and Instagram. [01:41:51] This show is created in association with PodcastOne and this episode was produced by Jen Harbinger, Jason DeFillippo, and edited by Jase Sanderson, show notes and worksheets by Robert Fogarty, music by Evan Viola, and I’m your host Jordan Harbinger. Our advice and opinions, and those of our guests, of course, are their own. And yeah, I’m a lawyer, but I’m not your lawyer. Do your own research before implementing anything you hear on the show, especially today’s show. I don’t have anything to do with you implementing that. Remember, we rise by lifting others. The fee for this show is that you share it with friends when you find something useful or interesting, which should be in every episode. So please share the show with those you love and even those you don’t. This would be a good one to share with people who like art. I’ll tell you, painters. In the meantime, do your best to apply what you hear on the show with certain exceptions, so that you can live what you listen, and we’ll see you next time. [01:42:43] For those of you who are interested in going to prison with me, February 26, 2020. I am going to bring a bunch of you to an educational program for prisoners at their graduation, so it’s a big deal for them. This is such a life-changing and fascinating event. I have a little bit of additional details. I’m going to be emailing the interest list about this. You can get on the interest list by emailing me at email@example.com. It’s going to be February 26 near Lake Tahoe, so kind of near Nevada, kind of near California. This is a unique event that Hustle 2.0 is never done in the past, but I’ve done the prison thing before. We’re not winging that. Registration is open right now to a limited number of people. It’s going to be around a thousand. We’re trying to get it below that. That provides a 12-month scholarship to one incarcerated student enrolled in Hustle 2.0 at High Desert Prison. We don’t get any kickbacks. Don’t worry. You’re going to have to, of course, travel out there and stuff, but I’m going to make this affordable. You get details by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org and I can’t wait to meet all of you behind bars.