In north Michigan woods, feds raid an alleged upscale art forgery factory

FBI agents raided a home in northern Michigan this week while investigating a sophisticated art forgery ring that allegedly tricked connoisseurs into buying phony paintings purported to be from top American artists.

The raid Tuesday and Wednesday targeted Traverse City resident Donald "D.B" Henkel, 60, a self-described artist who is accused in a sealed FBI search warrant affidavit of orchestrating a years-long conspiracy involving previously unknown paintings by well-known artists and counterfeit sports memorabilia claimed to have belonged to Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and other legends.

A team of FBI agents raided this house and barn in 2020 near Traverse City during an investigation into forged artwork.

The affidavit offers a rare view of what federal law enforcement officials are calling a national crime ring with conspirators operating in Metro Detroit and at least three other states. The court filing describes a scheme involving six-figure deals, wealthy buyers and elegantly faked artwork that fooled some of the country's top art experts.

“This is every dealer’s nightmare,” said Elizabeth Feld, managing director of Hirschl & Adler in New York City, one of the country’s top American art galleries.

The gallery spent about $500,000 on paintings linked to the forgery scheme.

“These were very beautiful – fake or not," Feld added. "Whoever did this is quite an accomplished artist — just not the artist he or she purported to be.”

George Copeland Ault

The search warrant records also reveal how FBI agents discovered the forgeries after learning the type of paint used in one composition did not exist at the time of the artwork’s supposed creation almost 100 years ago. 

The years-long investigation culminated outside a large red barn and home at the end of a long, heavily wooded driveway along East Hoxie Road in rural Cedar, an unincorporated area of fewer than 100 people northwest of Traverse City.

FBI agents suspect the property served as a forgery factory where members of the alleged scheme produced artwork and memorabilia from the sports world and Hollywood. That includes everything from a Babe Ruth bat to a Mickey Mouse drawing autographed by Walt Disney.

The search warrant affidavit indicates FBI agents were investigating a suspected mail and wire fraud conspiracy. The affidavit was briefly unsealed Wednesday in federal court in Grand Rapids, and The Detroit News obtained a copy before it was resealed by a judge.

Agents were looking for evidence that included bank records; artwork purportedly by artists Ralston Crawford, George Ault and Gertrude Abercrombie; and counterfeit sports memorabilia and items linked to baseball legends Willie Mays, Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth. Investigators also sought supplies that would help produce forged artwork and sports memorabilia, including baseball bats, baseballs, lathing tools, grease pencils and shellac.

A list of seized items was not available Wednesday. Henkel did not respond to a message seeking comment.

FBI spokeswoman Mara Schneider confirmed FBI agents were searching the property but declined comment about the ongoing investigation. There have been no arrests.

FBI agents discovered other purported memorabilia during the raids, including a Mickey Mouse drawing and a Beatles advertisement.

Phony artwork

The investigation is focused on an alleged scheme to fraudulently sell forged paintings since March 2016.

FBI agents have identified eight probable forged paintings, five of which were billed as previously unknown works of Ault, an American artist active through the 1940s. Two other paintings were purportedly created by Crawford, an artist active through the 1970s whose precisionist style was similar to that of Ault, according to the search warrant affidavit.

The last painting was purportedly created by Abercrombie, a surrealist American artist active through the 1970s.

Investigators believe Henkel worked with co-conspirators in California, Florida and Virginia to sell the phony artwork, according to the affidavit written by an FBI special agent.

In May 2016, Henkel sold one painting purportedly created by Crawford. Henkel claimed "Smith Silo" originated as a gift from the artist to Henry Hotz Jr., dean of arts at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, before changing hands several times, according to the affidavit.

A buyer, identified as Victim 3, purchased the painting at auction, and $299,000 was transferred to Henkel's account.

D.B. Henkel received $299,000 from the sale of this painting, "Smith Silo," that he said was by artist Ralston Crawford. The FBI is investigating the work as a fake done in the style of the artist.

"Smith Silo" was hailed as a highlight of the auction held by Chicago auction house Hindman and was briefly stored in Ann Arbor.

“Hindman is aware of the FBI’s ongoing investigation and our firm has given the FBI our full cooperation," Hindman CEO Jay Frederick Krehbiel wrote in an email to The News.

The next year, in August 2017, an unidentified victim who paid $200,000 for an Ault painting became concerned after being unable to find any trace of the piece, titled "The Homestead," in the artist's archives.

A conservator then examined the piece.

"The conservator believed the painting was made in acrylic paint, a paint type not of the period when the painting was purportedly painted," the FBI agent wrote.

George Ralston Crawford

A second conservator said the paint was consistent with the type used by Ault while another labeled the painting a "modern forgery." Another conservator said the painting application was strange, as if it had been stenciled.

An expert analyzed materials used in the painting which supposedly dated to 1938. A test detected the use of a yellow pigment, "Hansa yellow," that would have been unusual for the time period and not widely used.

Ault and Crawford embraced precisionism, a movement that involved reducing compositions to their geometric essentials and featured strikingly simple shapes, smooth surfaces and minimal detail, said David Klein of the David Klein Gallery in Detroit and Birmingham.

Klein added that photographer and painter Charles Sheeler, whose paintings of the Ford Rouge plant are 20th-century classics, "is probably the best-known member of that group."

Meanwhile, in March 2019, Henkel allegedly approached a prospective buyer about an Abercrombie painting "Coming Home." Henkel provided the painting's provenance, tracking its ownership back to the original sale, according to the affidavit.

"Coming Home," purportedly by Gertrude Abercrombie, sold at action for $93,750 last year. The FBI is investigating it as a fake painting  created in the style of Abercrombie.

Henkel shipped the painting in April 2019 with an Ann Arbor return address, according to the FBI. "Shipping records indicate a declared value of $1,000 on the item," the FBI agent wrote.

But in May 2019, the painting was sold at auction for $93,750 and the bulk of the proceeds were wired to Henkel's account, according to the FBI.

One alleged co-conspirator in Virginia was involved in another lucrative sale in May 2019. The accused co-conspirator sold a purported Ault painting titled "Morning in Brooklyn" for $270,000.

The Hirschl & Adler gallery bought that painting, Feld said, and a second purported Ault creation titled “Stacks Up 1st Ave." Lab tests on one of the Ault paintings concluded it could not have been painted in the year in which it was dated, but additional details were unavailable Wednesday.

“Many other top dealers of American art had been bidding on these,” Feld said. 

"Morning in Brooklyn," allegedly by artist George Ault, sold for $270,000. The FBI is investigating it as a fake.

Sports memorabilia

The collection of alleged fakes involved in the scheme extended to the sports world.

Since 2015, two accused co-conspirators have sold a purported Babe Ruth bat for $60,000 and a Lou Gehrig bat for $120,000, according to the FBI agent. Most of the money was sent to Henkel and another person.

The FBI affidavit does not say the bat was counterfeit.

The timing of the Gehrig bat auction and price tag appears to match one sold by Hunt Auctions of Pennsylvania. According to the listing, the Gehrig bat belonged to a descendant of a bat boy who had met the New York Yankees legend.

Auction house President David Hunt said Wednesday he was unaware of the investigation.

Gertrude Abercrombie

The team of more than 30 FBI agents who descended on Henkel's property Tuesday on found the 4,000-square-foot main building filled with art supplies, paintings "and other artwork that appears to be in progress, as well as baseball bats, baseballs, and other memorabilia," according to the FBI agent.

There was so much clutter, and evidence of other crimes, that agents returned Wednesday morning.

The agent wrote,"In addition, the barn contains other paintings that may be forgeries, as well as more paintings that appear to be in the process of being modified."

Shanny Brooke, owner of Higher Art Gallery in downtown Traverse City, describes Henkel as an unwelcome, fringe figure on the area art scene. Henkel gained some attention for creating “Rainman,” a 6-foot-tall bronze sculpture placed outside The Village at Grand Traverse Commons, a local shopping development.

“I don’t want to know him. He used to come into the gallery a lot but we’ve never shown his work or represented or worked with him,” she said. “He is one of those people that likes to get a thrill out of making you feel uncomfortable.”

Twitter: @robertsnellnews