A forger of art tells all

(CBS News) Art dealers and collectors are all embarrassed whenever a painting that appears to be genuine turns out to be a FAKE! About the only person who doesn't seem embarrassed is the fellow who's one of the most accomplished art forgers of all. Our Cover Story is reported by Lee Cowan.

A earlier version of this story was originally broadcast on March 3, 2013.


The story you're about to hear is a confession -- of a talent tempted, a painter driven into a darker form of art.

His name is Ken Perenyi, self-taught for the most part.

"I learned to paint by looking very carefully at paintings in museums," he said. " I just felt that if I had paints and brushes, I could do that, too. I was convinced."

He learned well. His steady hand and his eye for detail are often compared to many of the 19th century masters.

But Perenyi didn't just use his paintbrush to please. For him, the canvas was also a con.

"It was me against the experts -- can I outsmart them again? Can I outwit them? Can I succeed? Can I make a fake and pass it off as an original?" he said.

Perenyi spent a lifetime ripping off art dealers and auction houses, by painting fakes so accurately few could tell the difference between his forgeries and the real thing.

"Risk is addictive," Perenyi said. "Whether it's gambling or the stock market. It's like going out for the hunt."

He's not apologetic about his misdeeds. In fact, he's downright proud.

He carefully nurtured his criminal craft in a way many cherish a fine wine, and has now written a tell-all book, "Caveat Emptor," detailing almost every dirty deal he did.

"You're certainly not asking for anybody's forgiveness here -- I mean, you're gloating about getting away with it," said Cowan.

"Well, I wouldn't characterize it as gloating. I would say I'm just being honest," he replied. "To this day, I'm still thrilled with the pictures I could paint."

Perenyi never meant to be a forger. He had hoped to be an artist in his own right when he started in the 1960s in New York. But his original work wasn't getting any attention. Broke and homeless, he turned to a small Flemish portrait he painted on a lark. It became the first fake he ever sold.

"As I was approaching the gallery, I started getting nervous. I was beginning to realize maybe, maybe this was crazy," he laughed. "But I forced myself to do it."

His sales pitch was always simple and calculated: He was very careful to never pass off his fakes as real. "You went in and sort of played dumb," said Cowan, "And said, 'I don't know what this is, I bought it at a garage sale, or I found it somewhere. What do you think?' and let them make their own judgments."

"In a sense, I guess I got a perverse pleasure out of that," Perenyi said. "I liked to present the painting and have the expert explain to me what I have."

"So you'd stand there watching them go over these paintings inch by inch?

"Oh yes. That was part of the pleasure of the whole thing."

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