This past week, the Federal Bureau of Investigation raided a facility in Traverse City, Michigan, and arrested a 60 year old man in connection with the production and sale of forged paintings and historic baseball collectibles.
Writing for The Detroit News, Robert Snell and Michael H. Hodges report that Donald "D.B." Henkel was taken into custody by FBI agents for running "a national crime ring with conspirators operating in Metro Detroit and at least three other states." They went on to say that "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."
Henkel's scheme was clever: in many cases, he would allegedly sell art purported to have been "the lost work of" an artist like Ralston Crawford, George Ault, and Gertrude Abercrombie. The investigator's affidavit (now sealed), reports that Henkel was assisted in the sale of the works by co-conspirators in California, Florida, and Virginia.
In one instance, Henkel allegedly sold a work he attributed to Crawford for $299,000. That work, titled "Smith Silo" is show above.
Another painting, this one attributed to Ault, sold for $200,000 and was later examined by three separate experts. The first two, both paintings conservators, were split on the authenticity, but the third, utilizing pigment analysis, detected the use of a yellow pigment, "Hansa yellow," that was unusual for the time period and not widely used.
Snell and Hodges reported that one art dealer who knew Henkel was hardly and admirer of the man. “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.”
As I wrote in my book The Art of the Con: The Most Notorious Fakes, Frauds, and Forgeries of the Art World, the scheme used by Henkel is not unprecedented. Rather, it figures prominently in some of the biggest art forgery scandals in recent years. For instance, Wolfgang Beltracchi famously "imagined" the sorts of works that artist such as Max Ernst and Fernand Leger might have painted but did not. The forger's skill was sufficient to fool appraisers and experts who viewed the works. But it was the clever backstory he and his wife created about "heretofore lost works" that closed the deal and brought in millions of dollars. He also took great pains to doctor-up convincing but fake provenance documents. The Beltracchis went uncaught until a pigment analysis of their paintings showed that Wolfgang had used titanium white, a color
unavailable at the time the artists would have created the works.
In Henkel's case, too, phony provenance was enough to sell untold hundreds of thousands--if not millions--of dollars' worth of forged paintings. Unlike Beltracchi and Glafira Rosales (whose forgeries brought down the once-mighty Knoedler Gallery), Henkel was alleged to be wise enough to create forgeries of works by artists whose paintings brought in hefty price tags but didn't grab headlines in the way a Pollock or Rothko sale would. This may be a reason why he was able to carry on his operation since at least March of 2016.
No matter, though. Ultimately, like all con men, time has apparently caught up with Henkel, and, if convicted, he faces prison time and hefty fines.