I’ve been an eBay seller for more than a decade now, and in that time I’ve watched the site move from happy community where people cheerfully set envelopes of cash around the world, to a marketplace that continually operates under a cloud of suspicion. Kenneth Walton and his ilk are in no small measure responsible for this. If you’ve ever wondered whether what a seller has listed is *really* what they’re selling, if you’ve ever been quizzed about *just exactly* what your own listing means, you may have him to thank.
Those of us who’ve been around eBay for a while probably remember the story: the bust of a “huge shilling ring” in eBay’s art categories, people who bumped worthless paintings up to hundreds of dollars, and almost-worthless paintings up to thousands of dollars. This is the story told by one of the men who did it.
In an irony that isn’t lost on him, Ken Walton was a bored lawyer when he discovered eBay. It wasn’t long before he’d quit his job to work full time at his new career as art dealer, buying thrift store paintings and reselling them on eBay. You might not think that would be such a lucrative move, but Walton had a few things on his side. Firstly, this was the early days of eBay. Auctions were exciting – people bid for the thrill and for the win, and they bid stupid amounts of money for – frankly – rubbish. But Walton packed the odds in his favour: he and a friend began bidding on each other’s auctions. This was initially permitted by eBay as a way of establishing a reserve price. When eBay banned shilling, he developed a list of new IDs, to bump up his sale prices and those of his colleagues.
It didn’t stop there. Walton developed what he called the “naive seller technique”, listing paintings that could have been (but probably weren’t) by known artists in such a way that art collectors would think they’d spotted something the seller hadn’t. That way, he gained collectors’ interest without ever directly misleading them. It’s one way to salve your conscience.
The genius of Walton’s book is that I end up wanting him to get away with it. I’ve heard any number of sellers make the same unconvincing excuses he makes, and say the same mea culpas when caught. I don’t buy it: if you set out to delude people, even indirectly, you’re a crook. But Walton is such an entertaining crook, I find myself forgiving him. Mea culpa indeed.