In the spring of 2000, an abstract painting was offered on eBay for next to nothing by a guy who claimed he'd purchased it in Berkeley at a garage sale and, now married, was getting rid of it to please his wife. He made no claims about who painted it. But a photo revealed an identifier on the work, “RD52”—the style of marking used by Richard Diebenkorn to sign and date his paintings. And Diebenkorn did live in the Bay Area in the 1950s. His work has sold for large sums since his death in 1993 (one painting sold for $3.9M). So the eBay sale got noticed, bids escalated, and bidding closed at about $136,000.
The sale also caught the attention of art experts who judged the painting to be fake. The New York Times reported about it. Officials at eBay looked into the sale and, discovering one irregularity in the process, cancelled the transaction. The FBI investigated. Nearly a year later, a young Sacramento attorney named Kenneth Walton was indicted, along with two conspirators, for shill bidding in this transaction and hundreds of others on eBay. Under a plea bargain, he agreed to pay partial restitution, stay away from eBay, and relinquish his license to practice law.
Eventually Walton wrote a book about his crimes—receiving good reviews. He admits that he forged Diebenkorn's signature on a painting purchased from an antique shop and then fabricated a back-story to sell it.
Now the Sacramento Bee has reported a new case of forged Diebenkorns, in an article by staff writer Blair Anthony Robertson dated 10/15/06. According to the report, in 2005 an artist named Henry Villierme sued a prominent Northern California art dealer, John Natsoulas, claiming that Natsoulas had forged Diebenkorn’s signature on old paintings by Villierme that were on consignment to the dealer. Villierme had been a student of Diebenkorn and had painted in a similar style in the 1950s and 1960s before dropping out of the art world to pursue a banking career.
According to the article, two of the allegedly forged Diebenkorns were sold to California collectors, and another was sold to Paul Thiebaud, San Francisco gallery owner and son of the noted painter Wayne Thiebaud. One of the works was reproduced in a book published by Sacramento’s Crocker Art Museum. An errata slip had to be inserted once the true creator of the painting came to light.
The lawsuit was settled out of court this past summer, and the parties have clammed up. There is a public interest in this case that has not yet been served. Maybe a prosecutor is looking into what happened. In any case, dark clouds remain.