Impoverished images of faces, two-tone Mooney faces, severely impair the ability to recognize to whom the face pertains. However, previously seeing the corresponding face in a clear format helps fame-judgments to Mooney faces. In the present experiment, we sought to demonstrate that enhancement in the perceptual encoding of Mooney faces results from top-down effects, due to previous activation of familiar face representation. Event-related potentials (ERPs) were obtained for target Mooney images of familiar and unfamiliar faces preceded by clear pictures portraying either the same photo (same photo prime), or a different photo of the same person (different photo prime) or a new unfamiliar face (no-prime). In agreement with previous findings the use of primes was effective in enhancing the recognition of familiar faces in Mooney images; this priming effect was larger in the same than in different photo priming condition. ERP data revealed that the amplitude of the N170 face-sensitive component was smaller when elicited by familiar than by unfamiliar face targets, and for familiar face targets primed by the same than by different photos (a graded priming effect). Because the priming effect was restricted to familiar faces and occurred at the peak of the N170, we suggest that the early perceptual stage of face processing is likely to be penetrable by the top-down effect due to the activation of face representations within the face recognition system.