November 6, 2006

Fear California’s Internet Tax

By: Joanne McNeil

The girl gingerly picked up the two lighters and examined them.
“Don’t you feel it?” he kidded her. “The histrocity?”
She said, “What is histrocity?”
“When a thing has history in it. Listen, one of those lighters was in Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s pocket when he was assassinated. And one wasn’t. One has histrocity, a hell of a lot of it.”

– Philip K. Dick, The Man in the High Castle

Now that debit cards are accepted at most corner stores, and we can auto-pay any of our bills, “money” is little more than an abstraction. We have long forgone budgeting by our wallet’s width; vague concepts of worth drifting in the ether have made abacus-like bill counting irrelevant.

This growing intangibility of currency, not to mention value teased from “intellectual property,” forms a yin-yang with the online auction boom. Everything has a price on eBay — Zippo lighters, socks, and fine art — but with each transaction comes the 21st century parlor game of guessing whether something is “real” or not.

Kenneth Walton’s recently released memoir, Fake: Forgery, Lies & eBay, details his mining days in California’s last gold rush: sifting thrift stores and dirt road antique shops for anything not-so-heinous to auction on the web. After discovering that even his worst paintings made bank so long as the signature could, if you squint and tilt your head, be a name in Davenport’s Art Reference & Price Guide (the bible of art “pickers;”) Walton curated a collection of art junk bonds. The odds were typically against their authenticity, but eBay is all about the gamble, right?

With a tragic hero’s fault of hubris, Walton couldn’t resist forging Richard Diebenkorn’s signature to one antique shop find. He also faked an identity for his seller nom de plume (golfpoorly) claiming ignorance of the painting’s history or the name of the artist, “I got this big abstract art painting at a garage sale [in my bachelor days,] and then I got married, and my wife has never let me keep it in the house.” A photo of a tear in the canvas — “Big Wheel accident in the garage” — also highlights the “RD52” signature Walton painted on.

While one could argue Walton was just living by the sword, as the (predominantly executive class) prospective buyers were just as much looking to fleece an art-ignorant suburbanite. The press were unsympathetic. The New York Times‘ Judy Dobrzynski pulled “golfpoorly’s” shade back, sparking an FBI investigation, and before long, Walton was a convicted felon.

But what is the point of authenticity? Isn’t art just a subjective question of aesthetics — is it pretty or not? A handful of experts were unable to determine the faux-Diebenkorn’s origin — had Walton remained silent about his forgery, the question would have persisted. “RD52,” a tiny scribble in the corner of the painting, was the difference between pocket change and hundreds of thousands of dollars. Even if the painting were legit it would have ranked among the artist’s lousiest. Surely the highest bidder could have found something better to hang in his bathroom.

So do most buyers weigh status before aesthetic? Unlike music, film, or literature — copied and distributed for mass consumption — the art market creates intimacy between the artist and consumer. As a result, the output of Dieberkorn, Picasso, Renoir, and others works like its own fiat currency (without, of course, much liquidity.) Dead artists command a premium, not in requiem or for posterity, but because only then is the supply of their output fixed. Sure, collectors inevitably act on some sentimental attachments; but sometimes tourists hold on to low denomination bills from foreign countries — if it’s “pretty.”

Ironically, counterfeiters benefit from high profiles too. Elmyr De Hory, the Hungarian copy artist made famous in Orson Wells’ quasi-documentary, F is for Fake, is now so legendary his work commands six figures.

Someone should have told Dale Chihuly about De Hory before he filed a suit against two other Puget Sound glass artists for ripping-off his sea-inspired sculptures. The underdog spirit in this venture-capitalist-rich region may in time reward Brian Rubino and Robert Kaindl above Chihuly. Many Seattle residents already resent Chihuly’s misreading of copyright law. Rubino and Kaindl aren’t passing their work as authentic Chihuly; which is why the lawsuit is unlikely to do much but crack his reputation.

Notably, Chihuly hasn’t actually blown any glass in 27 years; but he is the design mastermind — the eye-patch wearing icon of these sometimes big, sometimes garish, and always “nature-inspired” pieces. His success is another nail in the coffin for Walter Benjamin’s theory of the “aura.” Its assembly line production does not capture a moment in time lost, the “desire of contemporary masses to bring things ‘closer’ spatially and humanly” — nor would it ever make Stendhal queasy. Given the near impossibility of leaving his artistic fingerprints on the glass; imitators are inevitable. They are not, however, able to command as high a price.

The business of art collecting, swimming against the invisible economy, is rich and strange, but value of authenticity is as strong as any currency. Try to pass off some bleached $5 bills as something ten times their worth; and you’ll see why art collectors accept no imitations.

Joanne McNeil is Brainwash’s Science and Tech Editor. Her website is