Fake: Forgery, Lies, and eBayby Kenneth Walton
It was the golden age of eBay. Optimistic bidders went online to the world's largest flea market in droves, ready to spend cash on everything from garden gnomes to Mercedes convertibles. Among them were art collectors willing to spend big money on unseen paintings, hoping to buy valuable pieces of art at below-market prices. EBay also attracted the occasional con… See more details below
It was the golden age of eBay. Optimistic bidders went online to the world's largest flea market in droves, ready to spend cash on everything from garden gnomes to Mercedes convertibles. Among them were art collectors willing to spend big money on unseen paintings, hoping to buy valuable pieces of art at below-market prices. EBay also attracted the occasional con artist unable to resist the temptation of abusing a system that prided itself on being "based on trust." Kenneth Walton -- once a lawyer bound by the ethics of his profession to uphold the law -- was seduced by just such a con artist and, eventually, became one himself.
Ripped from the headlines of the New York Times, the first newspaper to break the story, Fake describes Walton's innocent beginnings as an online art-trading hobbyist and details the downward spiral of greed that ultimately led to his federal felony conviction. What started out as a satisfying exercise in reselling thrift store paintings for a profit in order to pay back student loans and mounting credit card debt soon became a fierce addiction to the subtle deception of luring unsuspecting bidders into overpaying for paintings of questionable origins.
In a landscape peopled with colorful eccentrics hoping to score museum-quality paintings at bargain prices, Walton entered into a partnership with Ken Fetterman, an unslick (yet somehow very effective) con man. Over the course of eighteen months they managed to take in hundreds of thousands of dollars by selling forged paintings and bidding on their own auctions to drive up the prices. When their deception was discovered and made international headlines, Walton found himself stalked byreporters and federal agents while Fetterman went on the lam, sparking a nationwide FBI manhunt. His elaborate game of cat and mouse lasted nearly three years, until the feds caught up with him after a routine traffic violation and brought him to justice.
In this sensational story of the seductive power of greed, Kenneth Walton breaks his silence for the first time and, in his own words, details the international scandal that forever changed the way eBay does business.
- Simon & Schuster Adult Publishing Group
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- 5.50(w) x 1.00(h) x 8.40(d)
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THE SIXTH PART
Fetterman and I soon embarked on what turned out to be our final art-buying trip together, a frenzied journey that took us from Sacramento to Las Vegas and back in three and a half days. By the time we took this last trip, we had gotten it down to a science.
Fetterman paid an early-morning visit to the Sacramento International Airport to rent a minivan. He made sure the rental contract included unlimited mileage, a provision we intended to exploit without shame. To maximize cargo space, we usually removed the backseat of the van; this created enough room to store more than a hundred paintings, if they were stacked carefully. This time the backseat was connected to the van with a bicycle lock and could not be removed, which infuriated Fetterman.
"Relax," I told him, and folded the seat forward. We still had plenty of room. I shoved about twenty flattened boxes in the back to use as buffers between delicate paintings.
As usual, each of us left for the trip with a folded stack of hundred-dollar bills. I brought two thousand dollars. For on-the-road research, we brought a copy of Davenport's, Hughes's Artists in California, and two signature guides. Anything more only got in the way.
I was the navigator. Before the trip I spent hours poring through Internet Yellow Pages to find each antique and thrift store in our path. I used mapping software to plot a route through all the stores in each town and kept everything organized in a binder.
Fetterman appreciated this efficiency, because he was obsessed with making good time. His jerky, kinetic gestures became more pronounced on these trips and his gaitquickened to an awkward race-walking pace. After buying paintings at a store, he would tuck them under his arms and fly out the door so quickly a bystander might have thought he had stolen them. If we entered a large antique shop together, he would go in one direction and I would head in the other, so we could search the place as quickly as possible. If we found two adjacent shops, he popped into one while I checked the other.
Within a few hours of our departure, my optimistic mood was turning sour. Fetterman usually felt the need to take charge when we were on the road, and this morning he went so far as to question my ability to shop for art. "You didn't find anything?" he said with slack-jawed incredulity when I left a store I had searched by myself without buying anything.
"There's nothing in there," I said.
He rushed into the store to make sure. He came out empty-handed too, but I knew if he had found something he'd have badgered me about it for the next hundred miles. Fetterman's impatience demanded we eat only at restaurants with drive-through lanes. If he found something on sale, such as a burger for ninety-nine cents, he would buy several and save them for later, so we wouldn't have to stop again for a while.
More disturbing than his impatience was his inane chatter. His three favorite topics while on the road were eBay, the time we'd spent in the army, and large-breasted women. His sense of humor was always juvenile, and sometimes it bordered on slapstick. One gag he enjoyed was pointing his finger at my chest, as if indicating a stain on my shirt, then smacking my chin with the back of his hand when I looked down. He would giggle wildly if I ever fell for that one. Another of his favorite tricks was burping into his hand and quickly holding it up in front of my nose, expecting me to tell him the contents of his last meal. "Knock it off!" I would say, clenching my teeth as I shoved his burp-filled hand out of my face.
But here's the thing: I put up with it. No one was forcing me to be in the car with him. I didn't have to endure his childish jokes and condescending insults. I did it for one simple reason: the money I was making on eBay. I tolerated him with embarrassing passivity. There seemed to be no end to what I would endure, and do, in order to keep art and money passing through my hands.
One thing Fetterman and I did agree on was our obsession with eBay, and one of the most unpleasant things about being on the road was being separated from our favorite website. Public Internet access was not easy to find in early 2000, especially in rural areas. We might stop at a library or a Kinko's, but it was easier to call a friend or relative. "Hi, Mom? Could you check my auctions again?" I loathed making these annoying requests, and felt like a drug addict who was continually asking to borrow money from relatives to support his habit.
We made it all the way down the Central Valley in the early morning hours and visited shops in the desert cities of Lancaster and Palmdale before lunch. Just after noon, we stopped at a place called The Orbit, a grimy antique store in Pearblossom, an unfortunate cluster of buildings nestled along a barren stretch of two-lane Highway 138, outside of Palmdale. The shop was a vast depository of grotesque furniture, carpet remnants, obsolete home electronics, coffee mugs with clever sayings, and tangles of forgotten and mostly undesirable objects. A narrow path snaked through this collection of rubble. While perusing this mess I noticed a large orange and green abstract painting perched crookedly atop a stack of milk jugs behind a bicycle frame. It reminded me of something, but I wasn't sure what. I climbed over a Naugahyde sofa and a stack of board games to get to it. The canvas was covered in a viscous layer of grime that spread to my hands and shirt. The price? Eight dollars, after some haggling with the elderly proprietor. We left Pearblossom and headed up Interstate 15 toward Nevada, stopping in Victorville and Barstow and several other small towns before night fell.
On the final stretch of highway before we reached Nevada, as the sun dipped below the horizon and left behind the brilliant, sad colors unique to the desert, Fetterman leaned out the window and snapped photos with his new digital camera. Before long the sky was black. About fifty miles from Las Vegas, in the middle of an uninhabited desert, traffic on the interstate slowed to a surreal standstill. For nearly thirty minutes we sat trapped on an unlit four-lane highway along with hundreds of other people, forming a chain of cars that stretched as far as the eye could see. Then traffic started creeping again, just as inexplicably as it had stopped, and we were soon cruising at freeway speed. There was no accident being cleared, no roadwork. Just a traffic jam in the desert. Obstacles sometimes appear where they're least expected.
As we pulled into Vegas, Fetterman spoke for the first time in nearly an hour.
"You still seeing that same chick?"
"Katherine? No, I broke up with her last week." I ended things because I had been unable to resolve my ambivalence about our relationship, the way I admired Katherine's strength of character even as I was bothered by her domesticity and all the "settling down" it carried with it. Settling down meant accepting myself for who I was, a frightening endeavor I wasn't ready to undertake despite the things I loved about Katherine. But I wasn't going to explain all of this to Fetterman. This wasn't the sort of thing we talked about.
"Too bad. She was hot, man. Maybe we can pick up some women tonight in Vegas. I hear this place is crawling with them."
In Las Vegas, Fetterman and I stayed at the Venetian, a thirty-six-story casino hotel that tried, without success, to look like the city of Venice. The next morning we set out to look for art. Most people come to Vegas hoping to win money in the casinos, but Fetterman and I found our jackpot at the city's antique stores. The place was a trove of reasonably priced art that was ideal for resale on eBay.
The abundance of art in Las Vegas was a surprise. For one thing, Vegas has relatively few antique stores for a city of its size. This is understandable, as the city had been nothing more than a fork in the road until 1941, when the first big casino was built. Anything antique in Las Vegas was brought in from somewhere else. Secondly, Las Vegas has never had a thriving local arts scene. Instead of galleries displaying quality original work by local artists, Las Vegas has high-priced art shops in the casinos that sell gaudy reproductions of famous paintings. Finally, to the extent that there is money among the local residents, it's new money, more likely to be spent on flashy cars and stucco mansions than tasteful art collections. Vegas just isn't the type of city where I expected to find much art. It was Fetterman's idea to go there.
But I was wrong. The antique stores in Vegas were packed with good paintings. We unearthed handsome nineteenth-century landscapes and fascinating abstract paintings from the 1950s. We came across decent paintings in all styles from all over the United States, Europe, and Latin America. We found something to buy in nearly every shop we visited, and in a single day we purchased sixty pieces.
Why so much good art? I could only guess. For one thing, Las Vegas is not just a place to gamble, it is a retirement town. The weather is warm and dry and the real estate's cheap, so it attracts people from around the country to many new developments targeted at retirees. When people retire they get rid of things, including furniture and art.
Las Vegas is also a frontier town where people come from other places to seek fortunes or make new starts. Not all of them make it. Some go bankrupt, some start drinking again, some grow weary of the heat, and some reconcile with spouses left behind. For whatever reason, a lot of people leave Las Vegas not long after moving there. There's a lot of coming and going, and where there is coming and going, things fall through the cracks. People have to sell stuff quickly. Some forget to pay the rent on storage units. Good paintings trickle into the local market. One of the more memorable finds of that day was a beautiful landscape by the Florida artist Harold Newton, whose work was becoming very popular in, but rarely found outside of, his native state.
The seeming abundance of art may also have been due to the fact that we might have been the first eBay sellers to raid the place. We were able to pick through a huge assortment of paintings that had been sitting around for a while.
There were many thrilling discoveries during the day, but my mood was always undermined by nagging reminders of the trickery that was part of what we did. I had been working with Fetterman long enough to know that he was not just looking for good paintings to resell at a profit; he was looking for art that would fool people. I was sure he scanned each painting we bought to see if he might be able to alter it in some way.
Sadly, my mind was now working like his. I no longer relied on him to hatch every crafty scheme. I had yet to actually commit an act of forgery (although I'd entertained the idea more than once), but I had gotten very good at deception. "This is a tricky one," I said to him when we found a seascape painting that looked old and valuable, but was actually new and very cheap. I knew if I photographed it selectively and failed to mention its age, someone on eBay might mistake it for the antique it was not, and pay too much for it.
"You know what to do with that one," Fetterman replied, chuckling.
We spent a second night in Las Vegas and got up early the next morning to visit a couple of stores before we left. Fetterman was fidgeting, eager to hit the road. He had our day planned and didn't want to miss any shopping opportunities. But I needed my coffee, and on the way out of the Venetian I insisted that we stop at a Starbucks for a double espresso.
This break in the action launched Fetterman into a tirade. "Jesus!" he spat. "You're killing me! What's more important to you!? Your coffee or making money? We need to hit the road!"
I glared at him, didn't say a word, and calmly opened the door and stepped out of the van. As I waited for my coffee, I looked out the window and saw him shaking his red face with exasperation. He couldn't wait two minutes for me to get a coffee. I hated him. I hated his impatience and his deceit and his condescension. I hated how I saw more of him in myself every day.
Fetterman cooled off later in the morning, after we stumbled across another twenty good paintings. As we prepared to head back to Sacramento, he handed me the keys. "You drive," he said. "I've been driving the whole way."
We made our way back along a different route, up Highway 99, stopping at more shops along the way, and arrived in Sacramento late the next evening, the van packed with 122 paintings. Some of them were superb, many were good, and some were admittedly poor choices. In the rush to acquire as much as we could as quickly as possible, we had picked up a few pieces along the way that we regretted purchasing. Fetterman and I were splitting the profits of these paintings, so it didn't really matter who sold what, but neither of us wanted to get stuck with the dogs.
To decide who got to sell which paintings, we conducted a draft. We removed all the paintings from the van, stacked them against the side of my apartment building, and then took turns, choosing the best ones first, like schoolkids on a playground picking the best athletes for their teams. About midway through the draft I grabbed the orange and green abstract painting I'd excavated from the junky shop in Pearblossom.
"I like this one," I said.
Fetterman sneered. "You can have it."
Not all the paintings were up for grabs in the draft. Fetterman reserved a couple of them for himself. "These need to be cleaned," he said. I knew what he meant; this was his code. He had identified the paintings as ones he might be able to alter, perhaps add signatures to, and was ensuring that they ended up in his pile.
We spent five thousand dollars on the Las Vegas trip. Three weeks later we'd sold half of the paintings and had already taken in about fourteen thousand dollars.
I was, by this point, quite sure that Fetterman was adding signatures to paintings. At the most basic level, all this requires is an unsigned painting, the name of an artist, and something to write with. Combining these elements to create a convincing forgery, however, is difficult. But I'd been watching carefully, and I was learning what it took.
First, the painting has to be in the right style. This was Fetterman's true gift. He had an encyclopedic knowledge of art that helped him to pair paintings with artists. He could look at almost any antique painting and name three or four listed artists whose work it resembled.
Style alone is not enough. The age, size, and medium of an artwork also come into play. Knowledgeable buyers research these things carefully. The signature of an artist who painted in the 1920s cannot not be added to a painting from the 1970s. If an artist always created large oil paintings on canvas, buyers will be skeptical about a small watercolor bearing his signature. Each of the suspicious paintings I got from Fetterman was from the general era of the artist with whom it was associated, and generally fit in with that artist's other works.
Finding an unsigned, properly sized and aged painting that resembles a particular artist's style is only the first step. The artist's name, of course, must be added. Signature guides, used by art experts to authenticate paintings, are just as useful to forgers. A skilled forger pays attention to an artist's signing habits. Some artists always sign the same way, and others sign different works in different ways. Some sign differently at various stages of their careers. Some always sign with the date, some never do, and others do occasionally. The location of a signature is also important. Some artists always sign in the same place on a painting, such as in the lower left corner. Some sign the backs of their paintings.
A forger adding a signature also has to worry about it being detected. Signatures forged in oil paint are easy to spot with a black light. Some forgers believe signatures painted in red do not "float" as much as those painted in other colors, but in my opinion, a signature added in red can be spotted by someone with a trained eye. More important, because red signatures are a forger's hallmark, savvy art buyers shun them.
I learned, over time, that the best way for a forger to avoid detection is to avoid using oil or acrylic paint altogether. Signatures added to drawings in pencil, ink, chalk, or pastel cannot not be detected. The same is true for signatures added in watercolor or gouache, or signatures added in ink to the backs of paintings.
I looked at several of Fetterman's probable forgeries under a black light, and none of the signatures floated. He'd probably been faking paintings long before eBay, and he knew what he needed to do to pass off a bogus work of art in the real world. This was probably what had kept us in business for so long. With just a few exceptions, most of the paintings Fetterman sold did not generate objections.
Not all art forgers add signatures. Some are more ambitious and actually create paintings, copying works by famous artists. Sometimes this involves precisely copying a particular work by an artist, and passing it off as the original. More commonly, a forger will create a new painting in one artist's style and try to pass it off as a work that slipped through the cracks. Fetterman was not skilled enough to attempt such a stunt.
Other fakery is more subtle. Suppose, for instance, that an eBay seller finds a landscape painting signed "F. C. Smith" with a small paper tag on the back identifying the artist as Fletcher C. Smith of Denver, Colorado. Davenport's doesn't include this artist, but it does list Frederick Carl Smith of Pasadena, California, who was known for painting landscapes. By removing the tag, the seller could create the impression that the painting might have been done by this more notable artist. To invite even more speculation, the seller could scrawl "Pasadena, CA" on the back of the painting. With a little research, he might learn that Frederick Carl Smith showed his work at the Smith Gallery in Los Angeles in the 1950s. A fake Smith Gallery label added to the back of the painting might attract bids even from sophisticated collectors who are familiar with the artist's career.
Other more blatant tactics include the creation of fake provenance or bogus authentication documents from experts who do not exist. I am convinced that Fetterman probably tried these tricks at one time or another.
When I eventually became an art forger, I carried on a long tradition. Artists have always learned their craft by copying the masters, and for centuries prior to the Renaissance, making a precise copy of a master's work was considered a tribute. Only with the rise of the merchant class in the sixteenth century, when art became a commodity, could painters begin to make money by creating paintings that appeared to be by other more famous artists. Forgery thus became fraud.
Until the late nineteenth century, fraudulent art forgery was relatively rare for several reasons. First of all, there were few artists whose work was valuable enough to forge. The art market was tiny, as there were fewer wealthy collectors competing for the best pieces. Second, it was more difficult to copy paintings. Art in the premodern era was meticulously representational, and each painting took considerable time and effort. A forgery required great skill and patience. Finally, because there were fewer artists considered to be truly accomplished, there were numerous experts dedicated to each of them. These scholars truly understood the style, brushwork, and color palette used by the artists they studied and were not easily fooled by imitators. Despite these obstacles, forgers nevertheless plied their craft, and plenty of faked paintings made it into museums and private collections.
In the late nineteenth century, and increasingly through the twentieth century, things became easier for forgers. As styles of painting became looser and less representational, paintings became easier to copy. A faux impressionist landscape could be turned out in a day. A simple drawing by Matisse or Picasso could be replicated in minutes. As artists began to shift styles, experiment with different media, and produce works of varying quality, it became more difficult to tell whether a piece was truly done by a particular painter. At the same time, the number of artists considered to be noteworthy increased greatly, and there was less scholarly expertise to go around. As this was happening, prices in the art market increased at rates that far outpaced inflation, which was all the more encouraging to forgers.
Because of these factors, history's most notorious art forgers worked during the twentieth century. Perhaps the most prolific was Elmyr de Hory, a Hungarian-born painter who created more than a thousand faked paintings during his twenty-year career in the 1950s and sixties. He was a highly skilled copyist who imitated the work of nearly every important postimpressionist painter, including Picasso, Modigliani, Matisse, Vlaminck, Derain, and Dufy. He traveled around Europe and the United States selling these fakes to galleries and private collectors. During the height of his career, a seven-year span from 1960 to 1967, he claimed to have sold more than sixty million dollars' worth of art. According to de Hory's biographer, Clifford Irving, ninety percent of his fakes were never detected. De Hory's career inspired a book and a movie, and he became so infamous that even his known forgeries had significant value. Some sold for as much as twenty thousand dollars.
David Stein, a French-born painter who was active in the 1960s, was very adept at turning out works that appeared to be by Chagall, Picasso, Dufy, and other postimpressionists. His work was so realistic that one of his imitation Picassos was authenticated by Pablo Picasso himself. Eventually he was caught and spent time in prison in New York before being extradited to France to face charges there. While in prison in Paris, he was allowed to continue painting his skillful copies as long as he signed them with his own name. In 1970 the New York attorney general sued to stop these works from being imported into the United States, claiming that they were so good that unscrupulous buyers might be tempted to remove Stein's signature and convert them into forgeries.
The most notorious twentieth-century art forger was Han van Meegeren of the Netherlands. Unlike many contemporary forgers, van Meegeren chose to copy the work of an artist who lived several centuries ago, the great Dutch painter Jan Vermeer. After his own lackluster career as an artist sputtered, van Meegeren proved to be remarkably adept at the ambitious task of re-creating the work of an old master. Not only was his style convincing, he made the paintings look genuinely aged by mixing his pigments with bakelite and cooking them in an oven, which added centuries of hardening and cracking in a matter of hours. Van Meegeren made a good living in the 1930s selling dozens of these "Vermeers," which were so good they fooled the experts. One of his creations hung in the Boymans Museum in Rotterdam for many years. His ruse came to light only when he was forced to admit it to save himself from being convicted of a more serious crime. During World War II he sold one of his fakes to Hermann Göring for Hitler's collection, and after the war he was charged with the traitorous act of selling a national treasure to the enemy. When he claimed he forged the painting, no one believed him until he proved it by demonstrating his process. He was then charged for his past frauds and later died in prison.
One artist even went so far as to forge his own works. Giorgio de Chirico, an early surrealist painter, was best known for the groundbreaking "metaphysical" series of paintings he created early in his career. His later works were much less popular, and his career went downhill as he watched these early paintings sell for more on the open market. To capitalize on this, he began secretly creating new metaphysical paintings and predating them by twenty years. He was caught and was not prosecuted, but his credibility suffered.
All of these forgers worked in the pre-eBay era. Things were different then. Each time one of these men sold a painting, he had to meet the buyer in person and look him or her in the eye. He had to stand in front of the painting, which he himself had just forged, and pretend it was by a master artist. The forgeries had to be of very high quality, or the scams would not have worked.
But eBay changed the rules. For the most part, eBay sellers are anonymous, and they need only show a few select photographs of what they offer. They use "as is" and "no guarantee" clauses in their auctions. The paintings don't have to stand up to any kind of close, in-person inspection, so a forgery can be really bad and still sell on eBay. There is someone on eBay willing to take a chance on virtually every forged painting that is offered. The truly atrocious ones obviously sell for less than the skillfully rendered ones, but they all sell for far more than they are worth.
I stood over my dining room table and stared at the canvas sprawled across it. Freshly cleaned, the bright orange hues of the painting I'd bought in Pearblossom took on a new intensity, even under the dim light of the chandelier dangling above. I'd decided, shortly after we returned from Vegas, that this painting resembled an early work of the California painter Richard Diebenkorn, but it was not until now that I recognized how much so. This painting had been on my mind for weeks -- it was the perfect candidate for a Fetterman-style "alteration" -- but I didn't think I could sign it. I'd never done that before. Now, as I looked at it, I knew there was no way I could not sign it.
My face grew warm and I could hear my pulse racing in my ears. I glanced up at the windows. It was dark outside, and my apartment had a fishbowl quality that was suddenly very unsettling. I separated the miniblinds just enough to take a quick glance at the building across the street, then drew them tightly shut.
I tossed through a drawer in the kitchen and found a light brown watercolor pen with a flexible tip. This just might work. Water-based paints wouldn't fluoresce under a black light. The canvas in my dining room was painted with a thin, smooth wash of oil paint, and I wondered if I might be able to add a signature in watercolor.
I had seen enough of Diebenkorn's paintings to know that he always marked them with his initials and the last two digits of the year. I practiced a few times on a piece of paper, then leaned over the painting.
I paused for a moment with my hand hovering over the canvas. Then voices and laughter punctured the quiet night. It was late. Who was out making noise? I stopped breathing for a moment, my eyes darting back and forth as I listened. I let myself exhale. Just neighbors, walking down the street.
Then I did it. Quickly. RD52. Ten quick brushstrokes, just like Diebenkorn would have done it. It looked like a painting he might have done in 1952, and I knew I'd just created something that would be irresistible on eBay.
Then I heard my own voice.
"You're a con man," it declared, almost matter-of-factly.
And I guess I was.
Even as I descended into the world of art forgery, I was not yet savvy enough to avoid being tricked myself. About the time I brushed "RD52" onto that canvas, I met two local art dealers selling inexpensive paintings at a flea market outside Sacramento. When they saw my interest, they invited me to their house to see the rest of their collection. "Come over and check out the good stuff," they told me.
Their small 1960s ranch house was in the working-class suburb of North Highlands on a street lined with unkempt lawns, nonfunctioning cars, and oil-stained driveways. The two men invited me in with smiles. I took my time perusing their paintings, and only one piece intrigued me: a framed painting signed by Alexander Calder, the artist best known for inventing the mobile sculpture, examples of which can be found in many large museums. Calder was also a painter, and his simple abstract compositions reflected the aesthetic of his sculptures. This painting was very basic -- a few strokes of black and primary colors on a stark white background.
They wanted eight hundred dollars for it. I rushed home to do some research and discovered that similar works by Calder had sold for more than five thousand dollars. I returned to North Highlands with a wad of cash in my pocket. Before I bought the Calder, I took it out of the frame and looked at it carefully under a bright light. I could see the artist's brushstrokes, and concluded that it was definitely an original.
I called Fetterman that night to brag. At my apartment a few days later, a smirk crept across his face as he examined my Calder. "You've been had," he said calmly. "This is a print." Fetterman liked to denigrate my art-buying skills, and I could tell he enjoyed telling me I'd been ripped off.
"Look here." Fetterman moved his grubby finger to the edge of one of the black circles that formed the composition. "You can tell right here, this is a print that was painted over. It's completely flat behind the brushstrokes."
He was right. I had purchased a Calder print, crudely altered to look like a painting, for hundreds of dollars. I had no way of knowing if the dealers had altered it themselves, but I knew I wanted a refund.
Fetterman volunteered to help me get my money back. "How big are these guys?" he asked.
We hatched a plan. "We'll drive out there. You ask for your money back, and be nice about it," Fetterman said. His eyes widened and his arm twitched as he grew excited about what lay ahead. "I'll play the bad guy and just stand back with my arms crossed, looking crazy. I can get a look on my face that will scare the shit out of these guys."
We took his car to North Highlands. "Hi, guys," I said with a polite smile when they answered my knock. "Guess what? You sold me a fake."
Our plan worked. The dealers refused to admit the piece was a print but returned my money anyway. Fetterman and I stood in awkward silence on their crabgrass lawn while one of them went to the bank to get the cash. I probably could have gotten a refund without Fetterman's menacing act, but I'm sure the argument was shorter because he was there. "You're missing out on a good painting," one of the men snipped in defiance as we left.
As we drove away, I wondered how many of my angry customers would have been able to get a refund if they'd met me face-to-face and brought a dangerous-looking friend to my house. EBay didn't give them that luxury.
A couple of weeks after I forged the "RD52" painting, I visited Peder, a friend in Santa Cruz. "You should stop working with Fetterman," he suggested. "Partner up with me instead." His long hair whipped in the wind as he hunched over the steering wheel of his Jeep. We were bouncing our way to the Santa Cruz flea market, and I had been describing Fetterman's antics in Vegas.
Peder and I shared mutual friends and had known each other for years. I'd gotten to know him better in recent months after introducing him to eBay. I had given him some pointers, but he was naturally skilled at finding good paintings and had a knack for composing good auction descriptions. He had just acquired his own copy of Davenport's.
"Think about it," he said, his mellow voiced pitched with excitement. "We could go on art-hunting trips like you do with Fetterman, but it would be more relaxed, and you wouldn't have to put up with his shady stuff." I had hinted to him that doing business with Fetterman had a dark side, but I had not admitted my complicity.
"Maybe," I replied, my voice distant. I got along well with Peder, and he was obviously a more reasonable person than Fetterman. But did I have what it took to strike out on my own? I'd learned a lot about art over the previous year and had become a skilled eBay seller, but my knowledge was nothing like Fetterman's. And what about the dishonest tactics? Would Peder decline to work with me when he learned the whole truth, or would I, now an art forger myself, become his Fetterman?
"These auction houses are a gold mine," Fetterman said.
We'd been trying a new strategy. Small, real-world auction houses were entering the Internet age, building websites and posting pictures of items they were selling. These smaller houses often sold good paintings, but they didn't attract sophisticated buyers. Fetterman and I could place bids by telephone, buy the paintings cheaply, and then resell them on eBay for a profit. We did this several times in the spring of 2000. It was much easier than schlepping around in a van to look for art.
"I'm keeping my eye on Slawinski Auction," I said. "I made a thousand bucks on that nude by Pal Fried."
"I think we should focus on this." Fetterman said. He sighed. "Some of this shit we've been doing on eBay has been getting to me."
"What do you mean?"
"You know, all the tricky paintings -- I'm getting sick of it."
I said nothing. This was the closest he'd ever come to admitting he was doing anything wrong, and I wasn't sure if I wanted to commiserate with him. What we did was unspoken, and I wanted to keep it that way. Talking about it would make it real.
Fetterman continued, his voice quiet and pained, as if he were nursing a wound. "It's like...it's like it hurts the soul." Dead air filled the line for several seconds, and he repeated himself, more quietly. "It hurts the soul."
I had never heard Fetterman express remorse before. Part of me wanted to shout, "Yes! You're coming around. We can make money at this without fooling people!" But I was no longer convinced that this was true. I'd just quit my job and had become so reliant on Fetterman's "tricky" paintings that I was afraid to give them up. As much as I loathed working with him, I didn't want to encourage him to cut off my supply. I was now so immersed in our way of doing business that I had become a forger myself. I couldn't join in on this crisis of conscience. I couldn't abandon what had been working so well for the past year. So I just said, "We'll keep looking for the auction house paintings. It's a good idea." I assumed his doubts would pass, and things would be back to normal by the next day.
Copyright © 2006 by Kenneth A. Walton
Meet the Author
Kenneth Walton was a lawyer when he began selling art on eBay in 1999. Over time his online sales tactics grew increasingly fraudulent, culminating in the $135,805 sale of a forged Richard Diebenkorn painting in May 2000. The story of this infamous auction, first broken by an investigative report published in the New York Times, ultimately resulted in his prosecution by the federal government for placing shill bids. He was sentenced in June 2004, is no longer a lawyer, and lives in Northern California. This is his first book. You can visit his website at www.kennethwalton.com.
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