2 Michigan brothers charged in massive art fraud, sports memorabilia scheme

Kaitlyn Alanis
Charlotte Observer

Two Michigan brothers and a third man in Florida who were caught selling forged artwork and memorabilia — many for over $100,000 — were charged last week in federal court.

More:FBI eyeing baseball crew in counterfeit sports memorabilia, art case

Brothers Donald Henkel and Mark Henkel, and Raymond Paparella, pleaded not guilty Thursday to mail or wire fraud in connection to the scheme, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Illinois in Chicago. Mark Henkel pleaded guilty to “an additional charge of witness tampering for allegedly corruptly persuading a co-schemer to make a false statement to law enforcement.”

“Mr. Paparella has pled not guilty and is innocent of these charges,” defense attorney Damon Cheronis said in a statement. “He vehemently denies engaging in the alleged fraudulent conduct and looks forward to clearing his name in court.”

The defense attorneys for the Henkel brothers did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Authorities allege that from 2005-20, Donald Henkel, 61, of Cedar, Michigan, was “altering and applying false autographs or signatures to paintings and memorabilia, including sports, Hollywood, and music collectibles, to make the items appear genuine or more valuable to potential buyers, including art galleries, auction houses, and individuals.”

Henkel is a well-known figure within west Michigan art circles. He has entered paintings and sculptures — including a life-size grandfather clock carved out of African mahogany — in ArtPrize, the highly competitive exhibition in Grand Rapids. 

The investigation drew national headlines in July when The Detroit News revealed a team of more than 30 agents had descended on Henkel's property deep in the woods outside Traverse City.

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

The forged creations included paintings, baseballs and baseball bats, record albums and celebrity photographs, according to an indictment filed in court. Some of the artwork was signed as though late artists Ralston Crawford and George Ault created them, officials say, and he used the forged signatures of Major League Baseball legends Lou Gehrig, Babe Ruth, Honus Wagner and Cy Young on other memorabilia.

Donald Henkel used a vintage pen to help make the work seem more valuable, according to court records. He’s also accused of making up false origins and history for the paintings and memorabilia.

He then worked with brother Mark Henkel, 66, of Ann Arbor to recruit straw sellers, including Paparella, 59, records show. The straw sellers would pose as owners of the pieces “to deceive potential and actual buyers and to conceal the role of (the Henkels).”

Authorities say there were five other co-schemers involved in the fraud.

Victims included an Illinois auction house, New York art galleries and an auction house, Texas and Pennsylvania sports memorabilia auction houses, a London auction house, and a California collector and seller of Walt Disney memorabilia.

In an example provided in court records, authorities say baseballs sold for about $121,000 at an auction with the purported autographs of Wagner and Christy Mathewson. A baseball bat with Young’s forged signature sold for $120,000 at an auction.

A fraudulent Ault painting sold at an auction for about $372,500, officials say, netting the co-schemers about $270,000.

If the men are convicted of the charges, they face up to 20 years in federal prison for each count in the indictment.