The FBI Just Raided a Major Art-Forgery Ring Operating Out of a Michigan Barn That Duped Top Experts
DB Henkel is accused of masterminding the plot to sell fake paintings by historical American artists.
The FBI has raided the Michigan home of artist Donald “DB” Henkel, who is suspected of masterminding a forgery ring that sold fake paintings and sports memorabilia.
The alleged forgeries were sold as works by the Surrealist artist Gertrude Abercrombie and Precisionism painters Ralston Crawford, George Copeland Ault, who were part of the representational movement that embraced geometric compositions with clear outlines and simple shapes.
Henkel, who is 60, is also suspected of having counterfeited sports gear that he claimed had been owned by baseball legends Willie Mays, Babe Ruth, and Lou Gehrig.
The forgery ring was active as early as March 2016, and has been linked to eight paintings, with five by Ault, two by Crawford, and one by Abercrombie, according to the Detroit News, which obtained a sealed copy of the FBI’s search warrant.
Among those taken in by the scam was the New York City’s Hirschl & Adler Galleries, which spent $709,000 buying two supposed Ault paintings at Chicago’s Leslie Hindman Auctioneers in 2018 and 2019.
“These were very beautiful–fake or not. Whoever did this is quite an accomplished artist—just not the artist he or she purported to be,” Elizabeth Feld, Hirschl and Adler’s managing director, told the Detroit News. “This is every dealer’s nightmare.”
The gallery declined to comment further to Artnet News.
The raid targeting Henkel’s home and barn outside of Traverse City, in Ceder, Michigan, took place on Tuesday and Wednesday. No arrests have been made, but the search warrant indicates the the FBI is investigating a suspected mail and wire fraud conspiracy, with possible accomplices in California, Florida, and Virginia.
A team of 30 agents searched the property and found art supplies and other tools that could have been used to create the forgeries, as well as a Mickey Mouse drawing with a Walt Disney signature.
“The barn contains other paintings that may be forgeries, as well as more paintings that appear to be in the process of being modified” and “other artwork that appears to be in progress, as well as baseball bats, baseballs, and other memorabilia,” wrote an FBI agent.
A spokeswoman for the FBI declined to comment on the search further “because the warrant is now sealed.”
The suspect art sales include Crawford’s Smith Silo, sold at Hindman in May 2016. Henkel claimed the artist had given the work as a gift to Henry Hotz Jr., dean of arts at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. The canvas sold for $395,000 on a pre-sale estimate of $300,000 to $500,000, according to the Artnet Price Database, and Henkel received $299,000 in the transaction.
Hindman did not respond to requests for comment.
Henkel also sold an alleged Abercrombie, Coming Home, at Hindman for $93,750 last March—what would have been the artist’s second highest price achieved at auction, according to the Price Database.
The purported Ault works bought by Hirschl & Adler were also among the artist’s priciest. Morning in Brooklyn, which the FBI believes it was consigned by a Henkel conspirator in Virginia, sold for $336,500. Stacks Up 1st Ave fetched $372,500, the second most expensive work by the artist ever to come to auction.
The potentially fraudulent nature of the artworks came to light after one purchaser became concerned that there was no record of the Ault painting they had bought, The Homestead, in the artist’s records. In August 2017, a conservator examined the $200,000 painting and found that it contained materials that were not in common use in 1938, when it was allegedly made, such as the pigment Hansa yellow and acrylic paint.
Henkel has also been linked to the sale of baseball bats. He received the bulk of the proceeds of the sales of a purported $60,000 Babe Ruth bat and $120,000 Lou Gehrig bat. The latter appears to have been sold through Hunt Auctions of Pennsylvania.
Henkel’s own work as an artist includes five entries into ArtPrize, the annual contemporary art exhibition held in Grand Rapids, Michigan. A 2011 entry, a six-foot-tall bronze titled Rainman, is now installed at a local shopping development.
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