How Fraudsters Allegedly Fooled the Art World in 15-Year Scheme

Federal prosecutors say scammers sold fraudulent paintings and memorabilia to collectors and auction houses

Various paintbrushes
Federal prosecutors have charged three men in connection with a large art and sports memorabilia fraud scheme.  Pixabay

From the outside, the large red barn on Donald Henkel’s property looked like any other in rural northwest Michigan. But the building was actually the headquarters of a wide-ranging, 15-year art fraud scheme, federal prosecutors allege. They say three men created and sold fake pieces of art and sports memorabilia—a scam that allegedly took in galleries and auction houses nationwide

The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Illinois indicted three men—Henkel, 61, his 66-year-old brother Mark Henkel and 59-year-old Raymond Paparella—in connection with the scheme last month, per a statement from the Department of Justice (DOJ).

Federal prosecutors charged all three men with mail fraud or wire fraud; Mark Henkel also faces an additional witness tampering charge. Each count could be punished with up to 20 years in federal prison.

The three men pled not guilty in federal court in Chicago on April 21.

“Mr. Paparella … is innocent of these charges,” Paparella’s defense attorney, Damon Cheronis, said in a statement to McClatchy News’ Kaitlyn Alanis. “He vehemently denies engaging in the alleged fraudulent conduct and looks forward to clearing his name in court.”

Attorneys for the Henkel brothers did not respond to interview requests from media outlets.

According to the government’s lawyers, the Henkel brothers forged or modified works of art, music collectibles, Hollywood memorabilia and sports items.

Prosecutors allege that Donald Henkel added artist signatures to several paintings, then tried to convince galleries, auction houses and private buyers that they were authentic. Among them were paintings he passed off as the work of Precisionist painters Ralston Crawford and George Ault, per the indictment. Known for their smooth, minimalistic style, Precisionists of the 1920s turned their eyes toward machines and architecture with what the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Jessica Murphy calls “a highly controlled approach to technique and form.”

The indictment, too, alleges a carefully planned operation. To make items seem genuine and, thus, more valuable to potential buyers, the Henkel brothers sometimes worked with fake “straw sellers” who pretended they owned the artifacts and who vouched for their (allegedly fictitious) provenance. Fake documents were created for a painting by Chicago artist Gertrude Abercrombie and baseballs and bats purportedly signed by well-known athletes like Lou Gehrig, Babe Ruth and Cy Young, per the DOJ statement. Prosecutors claim Donald Henkel even bought vintage pens to make the fraudulent signatures look more authentic.

Gertrude Abercrombie
Chicago painter Gertrude Abercrombie Public domain via Library of Congress

The alleged fraudster was a well-known local figure in the northern Michigan art scene, reported Brooke Kansier for the Traverse City Record-Eagle after FBI agents raided Henkel’s property in July 2020. He designed posters for the region’s National Cherry Festival and entered a large bronze statue called Rainman in Grand Rapids’ ArtPrize competition.

Asked what he would do with the prize money if he won, Donald Henkel told the Rapidian’s Viveca Lanuza-Vitales in September 2012: “I’m not into money that much. If I have a roof over my head and food on the table … that’s basically all I need.”

Today, prosecutors allege otherwise. They say the artist and his co-conspirators fooled buyers into handing over hundreds of thousands of dollars for fake items. One buyer paid $395,000 for Smith Silo Exton, a painting purportedly created by Ralston, while another spent $372,500 for Stacks Up 1st Ave, which was purportedly painted by Ault, per the indictment.

The scheme came to light after an unidentified victim paid $200,000 for an Ault painting supposedly completed in 1938. Later, the buyer had trouble finding any information about the painting and alerted law enforcement, reported Robert Snell and Michael H. Hodges for the Detroit News in 2017.

Known for his restrained scenes of buildings in rural America, Ault did not receive much attention during his lifetime. As Smithsonian magazine’s Megan Gambino reported in 2011, the painter attempted to exert control over his troubled life with his art. He “fixated” on his subjects, Gambino writes, “ … as if they contained some universal truth that would be revealed if he and the viewers of his paintings meditated on them long enough.” Ault died by suicide in 1948.

Baseball in glove
Prosecutors claim the men created and sold fake baseballs and bats purportedly signed by well-known athletes like Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth. Pixabay

Several conservators examined the suspicious Ault painting and came to various conclusions: One expert said it appeared the painting had been stenciled, while another detected the use of a yellow pigment that was not widely used in 1938, per the Detroit News. Lab tests of other purported Ault paintings sold by Henkel found other inconsistencies.

Investigators described 11 victims in the indictment, ranging from a Walt Disney memorabilia collector in California to an auction house in London; art galleries and auction houses in New York, Pennsylvania, Texas and Michigan were also identified.

“This is every dealer’s nightmare,” Elizabeth Feld, managing director of New York gallery Hirschl & Adler, which spent $500,000 on paintings connected to the fraud scheme, told the Detroit News in 2020. “(The paintings) were very beautiful—fake or not. Whoever did this is quite an accomplished artist—just not the artist he or she purported to be.”