High-drama FBI Raid on Alleged TC Forgery Ring
They found the acrylic guilty.
By Craig Manning | July 18, 2020
On the morning of Tuesday, July 7, the scene in the dirt-and-gravel parking lot of Faith Missionary Baptist Church in rural Leelanau County looked like something out of a movie, or maybe an episode of White Collar: Dozens of FBI agents and members of northern Michigan law enforcement, donning flak jackets and ready for anything, gathered to go over the details of a plan to descend on a nearby residential property. Their mission? A massive raid of a supposed art forgery operation, one that has allegedly defrauded art galleries around the country to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars. Talk about TV drama.
Much is still unknown about the case. Mara Schneider, a public affairs officer for the FBI’s Detroit office, said that she did not know exactly how long the investigation had been active but told Northern Express that it had been “ongoing for a while.” Schneider also confirmed that the Leelanau County Sheriff’s Office “provided assistance for the initial entry into the property” but noted that the investigation has otherwise been entirely the purview of the FBI. Schneider said that, to her knowledge, no arrests have been made in the case at this time.
So far, the most revealing look at the story has come from a Detroit News article published on the evening of Wednesday, July 8. That article named local artist Donald “D.B.” Henkel as the owner of the property targeted in the raid — itself located on East Hoxie Road in Cedar — as well as the primary profiteer of the supposed art forgery ring. Henkel also sold sports collectible sports memorabilia, including baseball bats that purportedly belonged to Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig; it is unclear whether these items were fake, or even whether the FBI suspects them of being fake.
The Detroit News was able to report on the investigation and the resulting raid after obtaining a copy of the search warrant affidavit for the raid. That warrant has since been sealed by a federal judge.
THE MAKING OF A FRAUD?
At 60 years old, Henkel — who could not be reached for this story — has long been a member of the northern Michigan art community. In 2005, his painting, “A Still Life with Cherries,” became the commemorative print for the 2005 National Cherry Festival. Just three years later, in 2008, another one of his paintings — this one depicting a cherry tree in the shape of the Michigan mitten — was selected as the Cherry Festival print.
Kat Paye, executive director for the National Cherry Festival, said throughout her tenure at least, the winning commemorative print typically has been selected by a panel of judges; she added that she couldn’t speak to how the commemorative print program worked before she joined the organization in 2012. Starting in 2019, the program pivoted to become a student-only opportunity.
Henkel’s abilities as an artist extend beyond painting posters: Numerous times over the years, he has exhibited his work at ArtPrize, the Grand Rapids art competition and festival that takes place for three weeks every other fall, awarding hundreds of thousands of dollars in in cash prizes. Prizes are awarded in both public vote and juried categories. Following its establishment in 2009, ArtPrize proceeded as an annual event until 2018, when it switched to a biennial schedule; the 2020 event, which would have been the first since 2018, has been canceled due to COVID-19.
The official ArtPrize website lists five previous entries from Henkel, starting in 2011. His entries include not just paintings, but also sculptures, carvings, and mixed-media pieces. Henkel’s 2012 ArtPrize entry —a 3D bronze statue called “Rainman,” which depicts a middle-aged man holding an umbrella — can currently be found in a fountain outside of the Mercato building at The Village at Grand Traverse Commons. Another entry, called “Father Time,” was identified by MLive as one of the top 100 public vote finalists in 2016, out of 1,453 artist entries. The “Father Time” piece depicts an old man, carved out of mahogany, presented as a working grandfather clock.
Though not listed on the ArtPrize website, Henkel also participated in the 2010 competition, with a piece titled “Coughin/Ashes to Ashes” — a coffin made out of 10,000 cigarette butts. After contending in six of the eight ArtPrize events between 2010 and 2017, Henkel evidently did not enter a piece into the 2018 contest.
The FBI alleges that Henkel began selling forged paintings in March 2016 and moved at least eight forgeries in the ensuing years. Those eight paintings were all purported to be previously unknown works by famous mid-century American painters, including five pieces attributed to George Ault, two to Ralston Crawford, and one to Gertrude Abercombie. Ault and Crawford are linked to the Precisionist movement, which typically featured industrial or architectural subjects depicted in precise, geometrical forms. Abercrombie is thought of as a Surrealist, a more difficult-to-define artistic movement.
A CRIME OF SKILL
Andrea Gerring, an art history professor at Traverse City’s Northwestern Michigan College, told Express that the styles of the allegedly forged paintings are indeed “very similar in style” to the original works of Ault, Crawford, and Abercrombie. She also called the styles “seemingly easy to copy” and cautioned buyers against believing in any “too good to be true” scenarios in the art world.
“There have been many successful forgers in the past and today,” Gerring said. “Their work is in many museums and there are many good books on the subject.”
While some artistic styles or movements are easier to replicate than others, though, Gerring admitted that passing a forgery off as an original — especially when selling through a reputable auction house, which Henkel’s alleged art forgery ring did — involves more than just painting a good fake.
“[Auction houses] are very careful about documentation and provenance, the history of a work from the time it left the artist's hands. There are also technical hoops that auction houses use, like special X-ray machines and sample paint testing.”
Craig Hadley, executive director of Traverse City’s Dennos Museum Center, echoed most of Gerring’s statements, saying that it certainly takes both significant artistic talent and meticulous attention to detail to pass off an art forgery as the genuine article. While Hadley cautioned that he’s “not an expert” in art forgeries, he did previously teach an undergraduate college course on the subject at Chicago’s DePaul University.
“They're clearly very talented individuals,” Hadley said of art forgers. “To be able to not just make copies [of an artist’s work], but to be able to study and really think about a particular artist’s style and body of work — and then be able to think about what that artist might have created in that style that would be plausible and could pass in the art historical record — that requires a lot of research on the part of the forger. But then you also have to fabricate the history or the track record of the art: fake documentation about who actually owned it, fake receipts, fake photographs and things that substantiate where the painting was in time, so that somebody who wants to spend $50,000 or $100,000 or $300,000 is sufficiently convinced.”
FOOLING THE EXPERTS
Because authentication is such a huge piece of art world infrastructure, the process of selling a painting supposedly crafted by a master is far more than a simple transaction between the owner of the painting and the interested buyer. Indeed, the system today involves art historians, collectors, donors, galleries, auction houses, museums, and appraisers. On the one hand, Hadley said that all of these parties would want to believe that a long-lost masterpiece is genuine, simply because a work that can fetch five or six figures is a win for everyone involved. On the other hand, he explained that everyone involved in the system “has every incentive to want to do their due diligence” in authenticating a painting; buying, selling, or being otherwise fooled by a forgery is both a costly error and a blow to any reputation predicated on expertise.
Because of this risk, artwork authentication has become an extremely detailed and sophisticated process, looking at everything from brushstroke length to the type of paint and canvas used in a piece. But skilled forgers are often up to the challenge, not only nailing an artist’s specific style but also going out of their way to get the right materials for the job.
“Forgers do research on all of this,” Hadley said. “They figure out that they need to use period material, that they need to buy old canvases by painters who aren't significant from the early 20th century. Then they’ll paint over or remove the original painting, and they'll paint over a stretcher in a canvas that is actually from 1920. So now you have materials that are from that time period, and you’re using the same types of paints the artists would have used, but you’re creating something new.”
Based on the FBI’s investigation, Henkel and his team of alleged art forgers were pretty good at fooling the experts. In 2016, for instance, $299,000 was transferred into Henkel’s account for the sale of “Smith Silo,” one of the paintings purported to be a forgotten Ralston Crawford original. The piece sold at auction, through the reputed auction house Hindman Auctioneers in Chicago.
The flaw in the plan? While hoodwinking appraisers and authenticators might be a fun challenge for talented art frauds, the fact remains that a single mistake or stroke of hubris on the part of the forger can unravel everything. That may have been the case with the supposed northern Michigan-based art forgery ring: According to the Detroit News article, authenticators for one of the paintings, purportedly by Ault, found that the work used acrylic paint and a yellow pigment called “Hansa yellow,” neither of which were period-appropriate.
“That could be one of two things,” Hadley said. “It could be a mistake, where the forger just grabbed the wrong type of paint. Or it could have been that they intentionally used the wrong paint, thinking: ‘Hey, I haven't been caught yet; no one suspects anything.’ And so they use a pre-mixed acrylic because it’s a lot easier than trying to mix your own pigment or dealing with the longer dry time of an oil. That’s the advantage of working in acrylic: it’s pre-mixed, and it dries much faster, so you have a shorter work time.”
A WORLD OF FAKES
Despite the meticulous nature of the art authentication process — and despite how easy it is for even a talented forger to eventually make a fatal mistake — Hadley noted that art forgery is actually a much more common phenomenon than most people realize. In 2017, the Wall Street Journal published an investigation into the online sale of antiquities; one expert interviewed in the piece estimated that 80 percent of antiquities listed on sites like eBay were fakes. In 2018, the Terrus Museum in the French village of Elne made the unwelcome discovery that 82 of its 140 paintings were forgeries. And Thomas Hoving, once the director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, has suggested that some 40 percent of all art in circulation is, in fact, fake.
“It’s such a complicated system,” Hadley said of the world of valuable art. “We’re all sort of interconnected in different ways. Museums depend on the generosity of private donors, who in turn depend on the expertise of the appraisal industry, and on being able to go to an auction company and purchase a work in good faith. But somewhere along the line, the system is obviously imperfect. 100 percent of what’s out on the auction block, not all of it can be real, just because we know that fakes and forgeries do make their way into the system.”
* Image above shows Henkel’s alleged Gertrude Abercrombie forgery, "Coming Home.”