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Fake by Kenneth Walton: Forged Art on eBay!!

April 16, 2019

Book review: Fake: Forgery, Lies, and eBay by Kenneth Walton

If you have been on eBay as long as I have, you may remember a kerfluffle involving the FBI and sales of “forged” works of art… and a few major changes in the terms of service. Well, this is a first-hand account of what happened, by one of the sellers involved in a moderately large scandal.

In the mid-90s, Kenneth Walton was a dissatisfied lawyer with a disreputable army buddy named Fetterman. Fetterman had a thriving business selling art on eBay. In general, this consisted of buying works of art from thrift stores and yard sales (mostly) and strategically misrepresenting them as works by “listed” artists.

It is hard to remember what it felt like to live in that time of “good enough” internet information. As I remember 1994, Google was not yet dominant, there were far fewer sites, and image search had not been introduced. Fetterman’s method relied on one of the authoritative “list” books of artists. And of course, no one had mobile internet. It was relatively easy for a seller to know more than the buyers did.

Fetterman went pretty wild with the fakery. Walton, in general, was more restrained. The vast majority of deception he performed was in writing eBay listings that said “not sure but could be a work by Smith,” using multiple accounts and seller identities, and playing dumb as a seller. While it was profitable, and deceptive, they generally only misrpresented second, third, and fourth-tier artists; this was nothing on the scale of the forgeries in the film, The American Friend by Wim Wenders ( based on Elmyr de Hory), or in the conspiracy run out of Knoedler Gallery in the 80s.

Walton’s biggest mistake was adding a fake signature to a work he attempted to pass off as an early Diebenkorn. He’s a compelling story teller and seems to tell the story candidly. And while Walton was disbarred, he works today as an advisor on art forgeries.

One gets the impression that it would be hard to get even as close as Walton did to getting away with it these days with everyone’s vast ability to research image histories. I am sure that forgers will continue to evolve though; those books are waiting to be written.

(I’ve linked to the book and also to a brief contemporary video from Walton’s book promotion).