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When Crime Does Pay—A Glimpse Into the Lives of Master Art Forgers

Updated on October 26, 2017
Rupert Taylor profile image

I've spent almost half a century working in radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

Financial success for artists is hard to come by, and often doesn’t happen until after they’ve died. Most talented painters can see the flaw in that strategy and prefer to make their money while they’re still breathing, so some try a shortcut to fortune by copying the styles of established and deceased artists and passing them off as the genuine thing.

These are the people who put the art in con artist to the embarrassment of experts, private collectors, and galleries the world over. Many fake grand masters hang in places of honour and, mostly, the people who paid big money for these works prefer to keep quiet about it.

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Posthumous Profit

There is proof that death increases the value of artwork.

Thomas Kinkade was a hugely popular American artist who died in April 2012. At the time of his death one of his originals had been languishing unsold in a California gallery with a daunting price tag of $110,000.

The Huff Post reported that, “The painting, ‘Sunday Outing,’ was being sold on consignment, and when word came Friday night that Kinkade had died, its owner called and asked for the selling price to be raised to $150,000, gallerist Nathan Ross said Monday. The painting sold hours later.”

A typical Kinkade piece.
A typical Kinkade piece. | Source

Ken Perenyi was one of those who recognized the value of creating new works from dead painters. He was born in the United States in 1949 and spent much of his duplicitous career in England.

Self-taught, Perenyi found out early that he couldn’t make a living selling his own work, so he built a lucrative career by letting other artists do the messy bit of dying and then producing new posthumous “originals.”

Avoiding the Masters

Ken Perenyi did not try to create forgeries of the likes of Picasso, Renoir, or Rembrandt

Art forgers usually don’t create new Cannaletos or Goyas because every last speck of the output of the great masters has been studied by people with doctorates who have written theses on their work. If a new Holbein suddenly appears on the market it will be subjected to intense and, perhaps, revealing scrutiny.

As Dalya Alberge writes in The Observer (July 2012), “Perenyi’s specialities included British sporting and marine paintings of the 18th and 19th centuries. He concentrated on the work of well-known but second-rank artists …”

He developed sophisticated techniques for aging his paintings with cracks and old varnish. Sometimes, he faked small “repairs” to his canvasses to suggest earlier restorations had taken place.

Ken Perenyi shows off one of his works.
Ken Perenyi shows off one of his works. | Source

The Wall Street Journal noted that, “Occasionally he even applied minute droplets of hardened epoxy to imitate the fly droppings that can get stuck on a painting’s surface over time, typically where the canvas is held against the wood of the picture frame.”

He would trot off to a dealer with his newly created John F. Herring or Thomas Buttersworth tucked under his arm. He had a plausible story to cover the lack of provenance – “I found it in Aunt Grizelda’s attic,” or “I picked it up at a garage sale/flea market/car boot sale from someone who had no idea it was worth money.”

He made his sales to different auctioneers and dealers away from the major centres of the art world. Turning up at the same gallery every couple of months with a Jacques Louis David canvas found under straw in someone’s hen house might raise eyebrows. But his earnings were far from chicken feed.

A Cutter in a Swell is attributed to Thomas Buttersworth, one of Perenyi's targets.
A Cutter in a Swell is attributed to Thomas Buttersworth, one of Perenyi's targets. | Source

Forgery Is a Profitable Business

Patricia Cohen writes in The New York Times that, Perenyi’s “forgeries, he says, financed an extravagant lifestyle that included European trips, exclusive restaurants, Versace couture, and ‘total freedom.’ ”

As Dalya Alberge notes, “Perhaps Perenyi’s proudest moment came when a forgery of Ruby Throats with Apple Blossoms, supposedly by the American 19th-century artist Martin Johnson Heade, made the front page of a national newspaper and was heralded as a major ‘discovery.’ ” The painting sold at auction in New York and Perenyi received a cheque for $650,000.

Long thought to be an original Goya this turned out to be a forgery with an earlier painting underneath. Conservators left the original on the left and the forgery on the right.
Long thought to be an original Goya this turned out to be a forgery with an earlier painting underneath. Conservators left the original on the left and the forgery on the right. | Source

Suspicion about Ken Perenyi

Eventually, the forger angered some people who really should not be annoyed.

Perenyi returned to live in the United States and, writes Janice Harper in The Huff Post he found “himself face to face with the mob and the FBI - escaping both by the seat of his pants through sheer audacity and good fortune.”

With that kind of trouble lurking in the shadows Perenyi decided it was time to give up his crooked ways and settle down.

The FBI investigation ended without explanation and Perenyi was never charged with any crime even though, by his own admission, he forged more than 1,000 paintings and hundreds still hang, as supposed originals, in galleries.

Another Forger Goes Straight

Wolfgang Beltracchi has been described as one of the greatest art forgers in history.

Born in Germany in 1951 as Wolfgang Fischer, he changed his name to his wife’s when he married. Beltracchi concentrated on faking the work of modernists such as Max Ernst, Fernand Léger, and Georges Braque and claims to have forged about 100 artists.

Also self-taught, Beltracchi produced a passable bogus Picasso at the age of 14. He bummed around Europe enjoying the hippy lifestyle before settling down to the serious business of creating phoney artworks.

All art forgers need a credible yarn to authenticate the work they are trying to sell.

Beltracchi worked with his wife Helene, her sister Jeanette, and an accomplice, Otto Schulte-Kellinghaus, to write a good back story to allay suspicion.

They suggested to gallery owners and potential buyers that the paintings came from collections that had been hidden during Nazi years. Beltracchi himself stayed in the background.

A group of Max Ernst's pals ham it up at an exhibition of his work in Paris in 1921.
A group of Max Ernst's pals ham it up at an exhibition of his work in Paris in 1921. | Source

More than Provenance Needed

Art forgers must fake the age of a painting to fool the experts.

Beltracchi scoured junk shops and flea markets for old frames to hold his new works. He faked labels from real art dealers, stained them with tea or coffee to make them look old, and put them on the backs of his paintings. He scrubbed old canvases clean and re-used them.

He and Helene created sham photographs using an old camera and pre-war film. There’s one of Helene dressed and posing as her grandmother that was supposedly taken in the 1930s; hanging on the wall behind her is a counterfeit Max Ernst.

He was careful to use paint that was available at the time the artists he was forging were alive, but that’s where he tripped up.

Suspicions started to rise about the authenticity of some of the surrealist paintings appearing at auctions. Chemical analysis of a Max Ernst that Beltracchi had forged found the presence of the pigment titanium white. This pigment was not available at the time Ernst was alleged to have painted the work and it was traced back to Beltracchi.

The game was over. Beltracchi and his wife were jailed in 2011.

A Fabulous Income

An article in Vanity Fair notes that “By the early 2000s, Beltracchi’s fakes were selling at auction to collectors for the high six figures, sometimes more. [The actor] Steve Martin paid $860,000 in 2004 for a counterfeit Campendonk called Landscape with Horses…”

Bob Simon of CBS News reports that “At his trial in 2011, prosecutors said Beltracchi had created 36 fakes, which were sold for $46 million. But, art historians believe … that there may be more than 300 of his fakes all over the world.”

Now that he’s been unmasked, Wolfgang Beltracchi is selling paintings under his own name and he and Helene have written a book about their escapades.

Ken Perenyi has chosen a similar path, exploiting his larceny by writing an autobiography (Caveat Emptor). With the statute of limitations having run its course he can admit his guilt with impunity.

He now lives in Madeira Beach, Florida where he turns out “genuine fakes” to admiring customers. According to The New York Times his works now “are bought by Palm Beach decorators, antiques dealers, professionals, business executives, and others who want the look of cultured gentility without the price tag.” However, the $5,000 a canvas price tag the Times mentions seems a little high for an imitation.

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Bonus Factoids

U.S. President Donald Trump claims to have the original of Renoir's "Two Sisters (On the Terrace)," However, the Art Institute of Chicago says uh-uh..It has the original donated by an art collector in 1933. Mr. Trump has a knock-off.

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Tony Tetro feels the words “art forger” are so ugly. He prefers to describe his line of work as making original reproductions of some of the biggest names - Rembrandt, Renoir, Chagall, Miro, Dali, and Monet were the masters whose work he copied. Some of those who didn’t pay exorbitant fees for his paintings say he is a “genius.” His art produced an income that allowed him to own a Rolls-Royce Silver Spirit, two Ferraris, and Lamborghini Countach. After the trial in Los Angeles and the five years in prison that followed he began turning out copies of the great masters for a list of elite and, one assumes, rich clients.

Han Van Meegeren (1889-1947) was a highly accomplished Dutch art forger. After World War II a previously unknown Johannes Vermeer painting turned up in the collection of Nazi Field-Marshal Hermann Goering. The masterpiece was traced back to Van Meegeren and he was charged with collaborating with the enemy by selling a national treasure. Facing the possibility of a death sentence, Van Meegeren confessed that the work was a fake that he had produced. However, the forgery was so good that the artist had to prove his skill by painting another fake Vermeer while in prison. He received a one-year prison sentence.

Van Meegeren is demonstrating his forgery skills to a group of art experts.
Van Meegeren is demonstrating his forgery skills to a group of art experts. | Source

Sources

  • “Master Forger Comes Clean about Tricks that Fooled Art World for Four Decades.” Dalya Alberge, The Observer, July 7, 2012.
  • “Masterpieces by the Yard.” Jonathan Lopez, The Wall Street Journal, August 3, 2012.
  • “Sales of Kinkade Artwork Surge after Painter Dies.” The Huffington Post, April 9, 2012.
  • “Forgeries? Perhaps Faux Masterpieces.” Patricia Cohen, The New York Times, July 18, 2012.
  • “Yer Cheatin’ Art: An Art Forger Tells All (Part One).” Janice Harper, The Huffington Post, September 19, 2012.
  • “The Greatest Fake-Art Scam in History?” Joshua Hammer, Vanity Fair, October 10, 2012.

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    • profile image

      S Maree 3 months ago from North/Central Indiana

      It's a pity that real talent is frequently ignored during a lifetime. While I find Kinkaide's works too idealistic, at least he wasn't afraid to sell his works under his own name.

      Good art well produced should provide a decent living. The problem is the lure of high living; so enticing! Dali, Picasso, and many of the greats didn't start out at the top. Instead, they weren't afraid to veer into their special niches once they mastered the basics. Most at first produced very conventional pieces; portraits, landscapes: whatever the client wanted.

      They usually had hard starts, hence the cliche' "starving artists".

      Bravos go to the original clients -- the ones who encouraged & enabled genius!

      So, support your local artists! If someone has a talent you admire, sit for a portrait or buy a piece that calls to you! You might leave a nice legacy to your heirs. I see this frequently on the popular PBS series "Antiques Roadshow". How may times has a grandchild or descendant show up with art that was accepted in lieu of a hot meal, dental work, pittance, or other deal?

      And if the art doesn't become a cash cow, at least one hopes the buyer was pleased. Thus is money well spent.

      Interesting, sad, inspiring & certainly enlightening! This piece should be discussed in every art class! Bravo, Mr. Taylor!