Theft and Fake

THEFT: A LOVE STORY
By Peter Carey
FAKE: FORGERY, LIES & EBAY
By Kenneth Walton

Questions of influence and artistic borrowing were very important for the Modernists. The quip that mediocre artists borrow while great artists steal has been attributed to both Pablo Picasso and T. S. Eliot. They didn’t mean by this that great artists were without original talent or genius. What they meant was that great artists had an awareness of the past, and had incorporated older traditions into a contemporary vision. They were raiders of lost arts – from the carvings of African tribes to Elizabethan drama – not in order to pawn the stuff off as their own, but to make it new.

In the art market, however, such arguments can seem rather abstract. What has value to dealers is what is authentic and unique. One pays a million dollars not for a bit of colour on a piece of canvas, but for a signature. This is the lesson Kenneth Walton learns at the beginning of Fake, a memoir of his brief criminal career selling works of art on the online auction house eBay. The paintings were what they were: just pictures picked up for a few bucks at local markets, estate sales, and junk shops. But by adding a suggestive set of initials – voila! – instant masterpiece.

Walton, a lawyer in California, was lured into this racket by an unscrupulous friend who was making a killing on eBay selling such fakes. Sick of his job and easily enticed by his friend’s high-tech-slacker-boho lifestyle, he quickly learned how to play the game himself – from acquiring an eye for bargains that might be mistaken for lost masterpieces, to priming the pump of his own auctions with shill bids. His undoing was an abstract painting he bought for eight dollars (it even had a hole torn in the canvas), which he then improved by adding an “RD52” to it. This identified it as a work by Richard Diebenkorn, and once Walton put the painting on eBay it quickly bid up to $135, 805.

And what’s wrong with that? you might ask. Shill bidding is just a promotional strategy, and Walton could have bought the paintings at the shill prices himself. Despite a fictional background and the phony signature, he explicitly and repeatedly warned that he was making no claims as to the painting’s authenticity. And, as he correctly points out, the people bidding on the painting were all doing so in the belief that they were ripping him off by getting a painting by a real (that is, marketable) artist at a bargain price. And let’s not forget that this is the Internet we’re talking about. Whatever happened to “buyer beware”?

These are all points to be made in Walton’s defence, and it’s disappointing he doesn’t do more to argue them. Instead, perhaps under the influence of a plea bargain made with the FBI, the book ends in humble contrition and directs us to the obvious moral lesson that through honesty and hard work you can make more money with a lot less hassle.

Peter Carey’s novel Theft inhabits a different universe of values. It too is the story of an ArtWorld scam, only far more complex and sinister than Walton’s real-life fraud. The hop-scotch noir plot, which ranges from Sydney to Tokyo to New York, is further complicated by the narrative device of alternating between the points of view of two brothers: The once-famous but now very down and very out artist Michael “Butcher” Boone, and his mentally disturbed sibling Hugh. The brothers are seduced by the morally challenged femme fatale Marlene into taking part in a scheme which, like most good noir plots, takes most of the book to figure out and even then leaves a few loose ends.

Carey is a master of voice and one of the finest stylists going, but he is also a terrific borrower. True History of the Kelly Gang was based on a famous bit of Australian history. Jack Maggs was a riff on Great Expectations. Is it any surprise that his last novel, My Life as a Fake (also inspired by a true story) was, like Theft, another exploration of the artist as fraud? That all art is both authentic and fake is a favourite theme.

The cast of characters – the rich but brainless collector, the corrupt and bumbling art police, the vampish Marlene – also seem borrowed. The brothers Boone read like Gully Jimson and Benjy Compson transplanted to the antipodes. Indeed it’s never made clear exactly what the matter is with Hugh, which has the effect of making him seem an even more deliberately artificial example of that literary cliché, the poetically gifted idiot. Great writers steal, but the very best cover their tracks a little better. It all makes for a colourful romp, but an oddly weightless one. Is it because it’s set in 1980? And why are so many of today’s writers now returning to that awful decade anyway? Can any art do it justice?

Theft is subtitled “A Love Story,” but it’s not the story of a particular affair so much as a story about love. Is authenticity a prerequisite for love? Can we not fall in love with a fake? What difference does it make, especially if we can’t tell the difference? If we find out later that we’ve been deceived, do we have any right to ask for our money back? Or our hearts? Buyer beware.

Notes:
Review first published July 29, 2006.

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