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Fake: Forgery, Lies, & eBay Hardcover – April 25, 2006
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From Publishers Weekly
In November 1998, Walton was a bored, unproductive 31-year-old Sacramento attorney when a "boorish" army buddy, Ken Fetterman, showed him his eBay art auctions on the Internet, gave him a five-minute tutorial on "the world's largest flea market" and cut Walton in on an auction that doubled his $400 investment. Soon Walton was frequenting thrift stores, making shill bids to raise the price on his own and Fetterman's auctions and selling paintings with signatures he strongly suspected were doctored by Fetterman, even allowing one buyer to think he'd landed a Giacometti. When Walton forges Richard Diebenkorn's signature on a painting that auctions for $135,805 in May 2000, the result is front-page coverage in the New York Times and an FBI investigation. The amoral slacker loses friends, lovers and his law license. eBay bans him for life; he pleads guilty to a felony and gets probation. Walton is humbled but gains a conscience, a pure love of art and a passion for computer programming. This engrossing morality tale is also a primer on how to commit Internet fraud, an indictment of eBay and its lackadaisical attitudes about crime, as well as a sad commentary on society where art is a commodity to be bought sight unseen by the greedy and foolish. (May)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
"Fake is the real deal -- a vivid and illuminating sprint through the murky waters of online auctions, greed, and the makings of a con. Kenneth Walton's story is rapid-fire read for all, and a compelling primer for anyone thinking of buying or selling something valuable over the Internet."
-- Franz Wisner, New York Times bestselling author of Honeymoon with My Brother --This text refers to the Paperback edition.
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However, Fetterman has certain tricks up his sleeve. At some point, Fetterman asks Walton to consign for him certain paintings by big-name artists which appear to be signed by their creators. Fetterman doesn't tell Walton how he acquired them, just to post them, and say in the description that they "may be signed by the artist" but they can't guarantee it. However, after several postings, Walton suspects the signatures may not have appeared from the artist's brush but maybe by another hand. And then Walton posts a painting by a huge name artist in which the bidding accelerates higher than anything they've posted before, and starts to get press and media coverage. And interest from the FBI.
Probably the first (but not the last) large eBay scandal which rocked the online trading world. A must read for anyone who wants to engage in serious online trading. It can serve as both entertainment and a how-to book in avoiding fraud: from both ends.
In the beginning, he describes himself as nothing more than a shallow, run-of-the-mill law school graduate who -- after only a year on the job -- was already desperate to escape his boring daily grind as just another faceless attorney at a large Sacramento law firm. I've known many young, newly-minted professionals (accountants, doctors, lawyers) in the same predicament: After investing years in their educations and taking on crushing student loans, they finally graduate and are suddenly faced with the reality of the inhuman hours, incredible stress, and limited options inherent in working for a large, traditional institution (as the author discovers, such big law firms are always the same, whether located in Sacramento or Paris). At that point, many start to desperately seek a way -- any way -- out of the madness. I know a couple of former corporate attorneys who are now much happier working at other jobs (rafting guide, truck driver) that have nothing whatsoever to do with the law...
Unfortunately for the young Mr. Walton, he didn't choose at that point to simply abandon the practice of law and run away to become an honest cowboy, fireman, plumber, Starbucks barrista, etc. Instead, he unhappily struggled on. Soon, his sad career plight was noticed by the slyly experienced Mr. Fetterman, who proceeded to milk Mr. Walton's desperation into a slippery plan to assist him in his lucrative eBay con games. However, since any successful con game depends on the greed and deception (especially self-deception) of BOTH the conner and the connee, Mr. Walton convinced himself to continue compromising his principles by acting as an eBay shill. He sank slowly ever deeper into his moral quagmire, mainly by choosing to adopt a Sgt Schultz outlook ("I know nothing... NOTHING!") towards the whole stinking mess. Eventually, the young lawyer gives up even that flimsy charade and commits a single act of deliberate forgery that explodes on eBay in a truly unforgettable manner.
Kenneth Walton is a wonderful storyteller. His clear prose and spare style move his tale of self-deception right along. I can't recall any other memoir that has impressed me so much for its sheer readability, and the honest and painful regret that is eventually expressed.
The real payoff (for both the author and reader) is in witnessing the amount of redeeming character growth which is experienced. In the end, he doesn't whine or complain about being treated unfairly, or try to justify his nefarious behavior. Rather, after finally coming clean, facing the music, making restitution, and accepting a felony conviction, Ken expresses sincere regret for his actions and the harm they caused to his victims (who were often working their own cons) and, most importantly, to his innocent friends and family members whom he let down (and who steadfastly stood by him as the saga unfolded). His denouement reminds me of the moral truth so forcefully expressed in the monologue by Danny DeVito's charactor at the end of the movie The Big Kahuna.
A great book!
The story describes his involvement with procurement of thrift store/antique shop paintings for resale on ebay and the shill bidding and occasional frauds that seem inevitable in an online auction site. He starts out bidding on his own items for sale to stimulate further bidding by others, and eventually picks up a brush and adds ambiguous initials to one of the paintings to encourage speculation about the identity of the painter. That painting gets bid up past $100,000.00 and attracts unwanted attention from the press, previous ebay bidders, and, eventually, the FBI. The feds were, at the time, under moderate public pressure to do something about internet fraud and the author's offenses were lumped together into a felony called "wire fraud". The charge was used by the feds as plea bargain leverage in getting the author's cooperation in convicting his partner.
The irony of it is that, in retrospect, it appears that Mr. Walton could have broke away from his "tutor" and made a good living selling these paintings without the shenanigans.