Brigitte Perenyi preparing for ritual to be released from slavery. Photo by Ken Perenyi
When art forger Ken Perenyi's captivating autobiography, Caveat Emptor, was published in 2012, the internet swirled with debate over the morality of forging works of art to be sold for hundreds of thousands of dollars to an easily duped art market that traffics in stuffed sharks, piles of candy and unmade beds to the tune of millions of dollars. While some smiled and winked at the talented con, others fumed that it was Perenyi, and not the outwitted art dealers and auction houses, whose morality they found shocking. But there is another chapter to Perenyi's life that was omitted from his autobiography, and that is the chapter of how he used his ill-gotten gains to rescue a child from sex slavery and, as the FBI closed in on his forging escapades, found himself an unexpected parent to a Ghanian child.
The story went like this. Throughout the seventies and into the nineties, Ken Perenyi was a brilliant art forger who mastered the techniques of a range of nineteenth century American painters. His forgeries were masterful, and perhaps even more impressive was his ability to replicate the finest details of age, from the manner in which he simulated antique canvas, art house stamps and frames, to the expert reproductions of patterned cracks in his paintings. What began as a naughty hobby to pay for groceries and art supplies and the upkeep of his prized 1936 Bentley, soon flourished to a lucrative career culminating in several sales to Christies and Sotheby's -- with a fake Martin Johnson Heade selling for $717,500. He bought a cottage on Madeira Beach, filled a safe with a million dollars in cash and lived a life of luxury while churning out his fakes.
Then one night in 1997, Perenyi went for a walk on the beach. But lightning struck and he headed back home, turned on the TV and his life changed forever. An episode of 60 Minutes was on, featuring Christiane Amanpour who was investigating a three-hundred year old tradition of sex slavery in West Africa known as trokosi. The trokosi system is a form of ritual servitude practiced in certain regions of Ghana, Togo and Benin, and involves the delivery of young virgin girls to serve as slaves to a high priest in atonement for a family member's wrongdoing, or in hope or gratitude for a blessing from the gods.
Perenyi watched in horrified shock as a seven year old girl was interviewed by Amanpour, who explained that the little girl had been delivered to the priest by her uncle and grandmother in hope that it would cure the uncle of Parkinson 's disease. Although the girl would not be taken as a bride of the high priest until her first menstrual period, her life would be devoted to domestic and agricultural labor for the priest. After marriage, she would be expected to bear the priest's children, who would themselves be held in servitude to the priest.
"I just couldn't sleep that night thinking about this poor little girl," Perenyi said, "I truly, truly just sympathized with her and having her life destroyed. . . . And I always felt so lucky that some very powerful people in my life took an interest in me, for no reason, and helped me. I never forgot that. . . And I thought, I don't care what sacrifice I've got to make, I don't care what I have to do. I'm getting her out of there and I'm going to change her life."
What followed is the stuff of an adventure book to put Caveat Emptor to shame. Perenyi contacted 60 Minutes, who put him in touch with Ms. Amanpour, who in turn put him in touch with an NGO in Ghana, International Needs, and before he knew it, Perenyi was on his way to Africa. After getting his immunizations, taking $10,000 out of his safe and throwing a couple of fakes in his luggage, he dropped off some paintings at Christies and Sotheby's in London, and continued on to Ghana. Accompanied by Mr. Wisdom Mensah, one of the leading opponents of the trokosi system, the two endured a long and rugged trek into the Volta region. Once there, Perenyi was stripped naked, purified with a beating of branches from a eucalyptus tree, and introduced to the high priest who demanded pills for his alcoholism, a case of good whiskey and ten thousand dollars. A series of negotiations ensued, as Perenyi arranged for an invasion of guerillas wielding AK-47's if need be, before the priest agreed to Perenyi's demands. There would be no "buying" the little girl's safety, Perenyi insisted -- she would be released, and there would be no trouble. The high priest was persuaded, and Perenyi returned to his hotel in the capital city of Accra, alone. The little girl, Brigitte, would be delivered to him soon, he was assured.
Ken Perenyi preparing to negotiate with tribal elders; photo by Ken Perenyi
Four long days passed and Perenyi didn't hear a word from Wisdom Mensah, and he began to worry that something bad had happened to Brigitte. But then one night, at 3:30 in the morning, the phone rang, and it was Mensah, telling him to meet him in the hotel lobby. When Perenyi reached the lobby, there was Brigitte, seated between two of the high priest's guards, replete in full tribal regalia, with Wisdom collapsed from exhaustion beside them.
The story doesn't end there. After some midnight scurrying across international borders and a speedy ceremony for the high priest to save face among his people, along with all sorts of twists and turns and unexpected calamities, Brigitte was placed with a family in Accra, and Perenyi arranged to pay for her education and housing. But there was one problem. She couldn't be returned to her family of birth, because she would be forever stigmatized. Should a crop fail or someone fall sick, she and her family could be blamed for having offended the gods by not living her life as trokosi. To remain in Ghana could cast Brigitte into a life of stigma and rejection. Would Perenyi take her home with him and adopt the little girl? Mensah asked. Perenyi didn't hesitate; of course, whatever it took, he answered.
"You know, in those days," he recalls, "I had tons of money. And I was thinking, oh, I'll bring her home, I'll hire a nanny. I'll hire some family back home to raise her -- money buys everything -- that really was my theory! I could do anything with money. But little did I know how my life was going to change!"
And change it did. When Perenyi returned home, leaving Brigitte in the care of the family in Accra while he arranged for the adoption, he soon discovered that the FBI was investigating him and he was no longer in a position to continue peddling fake masterpieces. "There was no hiring anybody!" He laughed, recalling the next eighteen months spent under the scrutiny of the FBI -- and adoption agencies. His life was turned inside out as one branch of the FBI investigated him for art crimes, and another investigated his suitability for an international adoption. "My lawyers were demanding that I give this adoption up; they thought I was crazy. And I said, there's no way I'm going to disappoint a little girl in Africa that's coming to America. And good thing I didn't take their advice on that!"
The adoption was approved, and Brigitte came to America to live with her new father. "It was bachelor father -- cooking, cleaning and juggling the FBI and sleepovers for my daughter! It was a bizarre life!" He admits, laughing at the memories of those early days of fatherhood without the nanny or housekeepers he'd imagined:
She'd have her friends over and want me to take them some place like roller skating, and I'd be worried about the FBI and I'd have a car full of little girls! You know, it's fun to look back and laugh about it now, but at the time, oh, my God! It was tough, it was tough, but we managed, and I'm thankful every day. I don't know how it worked out, but I never expected to be a free person, unindicted, with a beautiful daughter.
Perenyi was never charged with any crime, and now that the statute of limitations has passed, he openly shares his story. And Brigitte, now grown, is ready to tell hers.
"Every day of my life, while I was here, I wanted to go home," she says, recalling those early years in America. "I didn't know what my dad had done for me. I still knew I had a family somewhere and I wanted to go home."
Brigitte recalled being driven away on her uncle's motorcycle, never to return. Thinking her mother and father had abandoned her, and not really knowing what future was in store for her, she remained heartbroken and confused. Then one day, the village where she had been enslaved as a trokosi was filled with white people and cameras, speaking a language she did not understand. "I knew something was happening, but I had no idea what it was."
Sometime later, she was told a man was going to take her away from there. Suddenly, everything started happening all at once, and Brigitte realized her freedom was at hand when a strange white man, Ken Perenyi, arrived. "It was unbelievable; I didn't know how that happened," she says, relieved to finally be free. Once released from the trokosi, however, instead of going home to her parents, Brigitte was taken to live with a family in Accra, who by all accounts were wonderful to her. But still, she wanted to go home. Instead, after a year and a half, she boarded a plane for America.
Asked her impressions of coming to America, she laughs. "I thought I would be coming to a huge mansion!" she said, explaining that while living in Accra, she watched television and thought America was filled with mansions. Arriving at the Madeira Beach cottage that would become her home, she was stunned to see how small it was. She spent the next several years angry and silent, missing her family terribly. But with maturity -- and the knowledge of what she'd escaped -- she thinks back on those years with a different understanding.
"Just imagine someone who had never had someone to care for, having a little seven year old in the house! He tried his best and he did his best, but the two of us are very strong-headed!" They were rough years, for them both, she remembers, with a fondness for her father that is unmistakable. "Every day of my life while I was here, I was angry," she confesses, "I didn't know what my dad had done for me. I still knew I had a family somewhere and I wanted to go home. As far as I knew, I had just been taken."
But she adjusted to her new life. "Life was simple. It didn't seem to me that my dad was doing much. But all the time he was going through the FBI thing and I had no idea." It wasn't until she was in college that she learned the truth of the trokosi life she had been rescued from, and the truth of her father's forgery career. After graduating from college and doing some modeling, her story came to the attention of Marie Claire, which arranged to take her back to West Africa to be reunited with her family, for an article in their April 2013 issue. Brigitte was excited but nervous at the prospect as she, and Perenyi, had been under the belief her parents had willingly given her up. But when she returned, she discovered that her mother had no idea that she was being taken away, and had tried to come after and find her, eventually giving up.
"My mother didn't think I was alive anymore because it had been so long. When I went back with Marie Claire, they were in shock to have me right there in their arms. My mother recognized me right away."
Brigitte's mother encouraged her to return to America and get an education, so that she could care for her family of birth and help the people of her homeland. So after an internship with International Needs in Ghana, Brigitte made the decision to pursue a career in international development and to continue the fight to end the trokosi practice. But as emotionally hard and confusing as her childhood was, there is one thing she wants people to know about her adopted father. "What I want people to know is that in spite of whatever I went through, my father is an angel. He was sent to me by God, and everything that happened after that was extraordinary."
And Perenyi's thoughts on leaving the high-paying life of forgery to become a single parent? "I have a lot to be thankful about and my life has totally changed and I've had to have different values without all the money. My daughter brought me back to earth and now I like nothing more than mundane things, and working around the house and painting and living a very quiet life."
As Brigitte says, "All stories have difficult sides to them, but what people need to know is that this is a guy, never been married, never been around children, who saw this video and in his heart all he wanted was to give me a better life."
And now all Brigitte wants is to do her part to ensure that other children in her homeland who are not as fortunate, should lead a better life, as well. If one man, with some fake paintings and a safe full of cash could turn a sad story on his TV set into a happy ending, there's no reason Brigitte Perenyi, with her life and education ahead of her, can't show the world his efforts were worth it.
Ken and Brigitte Perenyi today. Photo by Brigitte Perenyi