Last week, a team of 30 FBI agents raided a northern Michigan home believed to be at the center of a national art forgery ring, report Robert Snell and Michael H. Hodges for the Detroit News.
The property in question encompasses a house and large red barn in Cedar, an unincorporated area in the northwest corner of Michigan’s lower peninsula. It belongs to Donald “D.B” Henkel, who is now accused of creating paintings in the styles of well-known American artists and selling them to collectors and galleries as previously unseen artworks. The FBI also suspects Henkel of forging sports memorabilia claimed to belong to celebrities including Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig.
No arrests have been made at this time. When agents investigated the property last Tuesday and Wednesday, they found art supplies, paintings “and other artwork that appears to be in progress, as well as baseball bats, baseballs, and other memorabilia,” according to an FBI search warrant affidavit. The Detroit News obtained a copy of the document, which was briefly unsealed in federal court, before a judge resealed it.
“In addition, the barn contains other paintings that may be forgeries,” the affidavit states, “as well as more paintings that appear to be in the process of being modified."
The search warrant labels the case a suspected mail and wire fraud conspiracy that may involve accomplices in California, Florida and Virginia, reports Sarah Cascone for artnet News.
Investigators connected eight likely fraudulent paintings to the case. Five are attributed to George Ault, while two are credited to Ralston Crawford. Another work is purportedly signed by Gertrude Abercrombie.
The forger in question imitated the smooth geometric, compositions of Precisionism to pass the paintings off as these 20th-century artists’ work. Initially, the results were convincing: In 2018 and 2019, New York City’s Hirschl and Adler Galleries paid $709,00 for two paintings attributed to Ault and sold by Chicago’s Leslie Hindman Auctioneers.
“These were very beautiful–fake or not,” Elizabeth Feld, Hirschl and Adler’s managing director, tells the Detroit News. “Whoever did this is quite an accomplished artist—just not the artist he or she purported to be. This is every dealer’s nightmare.”
The buyer of another supposed Ault piece, The Homestead, sought professional advice after failing to find evidence of the composition in archives of the painter’s work. A conservator soon realized that the canvas contained acrylic paint, which only became commercially available in the 1950s—more than a decade after the piece’s supposed creation, and years after Ault’s death in 1948.
Expert analysis also revealed the presence of a pigment, Hansa yellow, that only enjoyed widespread use post-1950. A second conservator consulted said the painting looked as if it had been stenciled, according to the Detroit News.
Artists often learn their craft by studying and copying masterpieces on view at various museums. But these copies must be made in different dimensions than the original—and clearly signed by the modern artist, John O’Neill, an artist based in Leelanau County (which includes Cedar), tells Brittney Buti of UpNorthLive.
“You have to be a skilled painter in order to do this [art forgery],” says O’Neill. “ … Some of these paintings sold for just under $100,000, so it’s tempting, but any artist with integrity is going to not forge art.”
Per artnet News, Henkel has also created and sold original artwork, including five submissions for an annual Michigan contemporary art contest. One entry, titled Rainman, won in 2011 and is now on display at a local shopping center. But Shanny Brooke, owner of Higher Art Gallery in Traverse City, southeast of Cedar, tells Detroit News that Henkel was not a popular figure within the local art scene.
“He used to come into the gallery a lot but we’ve never shown his work or represented or worked with him,” Brooke adds. “He is one of those people that likes to get a thrill out of making you feel uncomfortable.”