True confessions

Somewhere, at this very moment, someone is doing something wrong: illegal, immoral, unconscionable—perhaps all three. This, of course, is not news. What I find fascinating is that the human desire to confess the wrong seems nearly as strong as the initial desire to transgress. Getting caught, I’ve noticed, often seems to jump-start the confession process. And, at least since Augustine, there is the added option of putting it all down on parchment for the world to see. Hey, why not unburden yourself, and maybe make a little scratch while you’re at it?

This brings us to a new book by Sacramento’s own Kenneth Walton, Fake: Forgery, Lies, & eBay. Yes, it is another entry into a bloated genre I like to call “I’ve been very naughty, but can we at least applaud my honesty?” Walton has written a well-paced insider’s account of a compelling story that actually gains significance for being, on a certain level, almost ordinary. There are no murder-for-hire schemes, no bank heists and no multi-million-dollar scams in Fake. Rather, Walton’s story is a case study in self-delusion and false rationalization. Fake becomes a kind of universal template of the cautionary tale.

For those of you who don’t remember, Ken Walton is the Sacramento lawyer (now disbarred) who shook up the world of online auctions in 2000 by manipulating bidding on eBay. The scam that he and several cohorts ran was simple and well-established in the art market: auction a painting of ambiguous (but provocative) provenance and provide shills to goose any slow bidding. It was the shill bidding that ultimately cost Walton his gig, his lawyer license and a lot of restitution money, but the provenance issue is far more interesting. As Walton describes it, in very careful language, he simply suggested, very subtly, that certain paintings might be by certain well-known artists. Sometimes the suggestion came from Walton’s crafted bumpkin persona—a seller whose exaggerated ignorance would start collectors salivating. Other times, he would connect the dots explicitly for would-be buyers without ever guaranteeing anything. All of this nonsense would have fallen apart very quickly in any physical auction, but in the virtual world that eBay inhabits, the frightening reality is that it could go on indefinitely.

What finally caught the attention of the feds, the media and eBay itself, was one particular auction—the big one that quickly got away from Walton. Walton decided to nudge along a good reception for one of his paintings by adding a very eye-catching set of initials: RD52. That’s Richard Diebenkorn and the year 1952 to you and me, and the painting looked enough like a Diebenkorn that this auction had immediate, extraordinary legs. When the dust settled, Walton had the FBI along with every major media outlet panting at his door.

From this point on, Fake becomes a catalog of legal maneuvers and inspiring stories of Walton, rising phoenix-like, from several different scorched piles of ashes. Despite his ethical lapse, the author comes across as intelligent, resourceful, energetic and a pretty good writer to boot. His story has enough momentum and suspense to hook, and hold, any reader who has ever been tempted, even a bit, to do something wrong. That’s me, you and everyone else.

Here is Walton, near the end of Fake: “Everything I did and what happened as a result is an indelible part of me. I am forever a shill bidder and an art forger and a felon. … When I meet someone new, I am acutely aware that eventually, I will have to explain the part of my life of which I am most ashamed.” Doesn’t exactly sound like redemption. Maybe some secrets are just too painful for the conscience to contain.