The headline in a Detroit newspaper reads “alleged upscale art forgery” but a federal investigation into fancy paintings also includes a troubling discovery for collectors of sports memorabilia.
On Tuesday, a team of more than 30 FBI agents raided the property of a Michigan man suspected of creating and selling phony artwork and sports-related items over a period of several years. There have been no charges issued yet, but an affidavit filed in federal court this week indicates the FBI’s target was 60-year-old Donald “D.B.” Henkel, a local artist. The story published by the Detroit News indicated that individuals in other states are also under scrutiny by investigators.
Reporters Robert Snell and Michael Hodges obtained a copy of the affidavit before it was placed under seal.
The raid took place earlier this week on large property located along a rural road in the northwestern part of the state. A 4,000-square-foot barn there is what FBI agents suspect was used as “a forgery factory,” according to the story. Agents believe that’s where skillfully forged artwork as well as sports and entertainment memorabilia were produced over a lengthy period of time. The affidavit indicates agents found the building “filled with art supplies, paintings ‘and other artwork that appears to be in progress as well as baseball bats, baseballs, and other memorabilia’.”
Among the items agents were looking for were bank records, forged artwork and counterfeit sports memorabilia including items linked to Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and Willie Mays. They were also seeking supplies that would help produce the items including bats, balls, lathing tools, grease pencils and shellac. A specific list of items that may have been removed from the property by agents wasn’t known, according to the newspaper story.
One industry source told SC Daily Thursday that he suspected Henkel was involved in peddling bogus historic sports memorabilia as far back as the early 2000s. “It is a certainty that many big $ forgeries in autographs and bats have been successfully sold privately and in auctions under many different names representing the forger, who is very sophisticated,” he wrote to us. He indicated some of the items may have passed professional authentication and been sold while others were rejected.
The same industry source indicated that forgeries attributed to Henkel likely include Ruth and Gehrig bats and baseballs and perhaps a large group of rare single-signed baseballs sold in a major auction 15 years ago. He told us he recalled communicating with Henkel and rejecting a Ruth bat Henkel was attempting to sell in 2011, strongly suspecting it wasn’t authentic.
According to the newspaper report on the affidavit, “two accused co-conspirators have sold a purported Babe Ruth bat for $60,000 and a Lou Gehrig bat for $120,000,” with the money sent to Henkel and another person. However, the affidavit doesn’t specifically state that the bat was counterfeit.
The raid on Henkel’s property was good news to hobby autograph experts.
“I think this is one of the biggest forgers in the entire history of the business,” said Steve Grad of Beckett Authentication Services. “This guy’s been around forever. I first started detecting his stuff probably around 2002 or ’03 when I was at PSA. We figured out his forgery style of Babe Ruth pretty quickly.”
Grad said that authenticators and at least some auction companies have long been aware of Henkel and his methods, but by using others to submit or consign items on his behalf, he was able to push phony but realistic-looking items into the market.
“Christy Mathewson baseballs, Babe Ruth signed bats, game-used bats. This guy could do it all. He manufactured game bats. He got the lengths right, the specs, everything. I would call him a master forger.
“The feds really didn’t open their eyes on him until about 2008 or 2009. I’ve been begging them to look at him for years. He went to great lengths to make up provenance. He would use couples or older people to front items (he had created).”
The FBI investigation has also revealed numerous paintings that were allegedly created and fraudulently sold as original works for tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars over the last five years. According to the Detroit News report, investigators say a conservator who examined one of the paintings found it to have been made in an acrylic paint that wasn’t available when the work was purportedly created. A New York City art gallery spent about $500,000 on paintings now linked to the forgery scheme that were purported to have been sold by Henkel conspirators. A local news outlet, TraverseTicker.com reported Henkel was “well-known in the Traverse City and Michigan arts scene.”
Grad believes there are still sports items created by Henkel that are bought and sold in the marketplace but this week’s raid could at least put an end to additional bogus material entering the hobby.
“It’s a great day. I can’t tell you how happy I am to see this happen. There are a few more big chunks that need to fall, but he’s one of the biggest of all time.”