A True eBay Crime Story
It was the scandal that rocked the internet. A seemingly worthless painting sold on eBay in early 2000 for $135,805 — all because buyers believed it might be the work of the 20th-century abstract painter Richard Diebenkorn.
Nor was the story behind the painting true.
In fact, Sacramento, California, lawyer Kenneth Walton had forged the suspiciously Diebenkorn-esque signature, which appeared in an auction photograph, and concocted the hokey yarn about finding it at a garage sale some years back. Some of the highest bids, it turned out, came not from serious art-buyers but from Walton's eBay business partner, Ken Fetterman.
Before long the tangle of deceits that led to the historic sale began to unravel on the front pages of newspapers around the country. Walton and another business partner, Scott Beach, pled guilty to federal felony charges. After three years as a fugitive, Fetterman was finally arrested while on his way to a Frisbee golf tournament in Kansas.
Walton tells his side of this true internet crime story in his new memoir, Fake: Forgery, Lies, & eBay. Wired News spoke to him about the book and his experiences as an online outlaw.
Wired News: The story of your Diebenkorn auction broke on the front page of The New York Times in mid-2000. Do you feel the amount of attention your story got was a symptom of the times?
Kenneth Walton: It was on the front page of the Times three days in a row. I'm not sure it would have gotten the same amount of attention today. The scandal occurred right in the wake of the dot-com crash. Everyone's stock portfolios were crashing and the internet had turned from darling to devil overnight.
EBay's stock wasn't crashing, but the press was turning on them as well. Then I came along and gave them the perfect anecdote to go along with the idea that eBay was rampant with fraud.
WN: Was it rampant with fraud?
Walton: It was rampant with my fraud at the time, I suppose. There was and always is a certain amount of fraud that goes on on eBay.
WN: Let's talk about your fraud. You bought cheap paintings at garage sales and sold them, often, for hundreds of dollars and even thousands of dollars on eBay. How was that even possible?
Walton: In some of the sales I was involved with, they were paintings with forged signatures, and that's the subject of the book. A lot of the paintings I sold were simply good paintings I picked up at thrift stores and antique shops and I did sometimes make huge profits on them.
WN: In the case of the fake Diebenkorn, you even went so far as to make up this whole story around it. What was the effect you hoped it would have?
Walton: I realized there were a lot of art buyers out there who were looking for naïve sellers who didn't know the value of what they had.
My description of the Diebenkorn painting was just a complete fable to make me look like a hapless everyman rube who found this painting in his garage, didn't know it's by Diebenkorn and puts it up and there's these letters in the corner but he doesn't know to mention and they just happen to appear in the corner of one of the photographs.