Federal charges have been filed against two Michigan brothers and a man from Florida in connection with a large art and sports memorabilia fraud scheme.
A 34-page indictment in U.S. District court unsealed Thursday, says Donald Henkel created and sold a wide variety of phony items including autographed baseballs and game model bats. Prosecutors say Henkel and his brother Mark then used other people to concoct phony stories about the provenance and place them up for sale.
The indictment charges Henkel, 61, of Cedar, Mich., Mark Henkel, 66, of Ann Arbor, Mich., and Raymond Paparella, 59, of Boca Raton, Fla., with mail fraud or wire fraud. Mark Henkel faces an additional charge of witness tampering for allegedly persuading a co-schemer to make a false statement to law enforcement.
The three defendants pleaded not guilty Thursday during arraignments in federal court in Chicago, according to John R. Lausch, Jr., United States Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois; and Emmerson Buie, Jr., Special Agent-in-Charge of the Chicago Field Office of the FBI.
Donald Henkel is accused of creating bogus items 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.
In July of 2020, the Detroit News reported that a large team of FBI agents had raided a property near Traverse City, MI where it was believed the Henkels had built what officials called a “forgery factory” for artwork and sports memorabilia. Donald Henkel was a local artist. According to the indictment, Henkel also used pseudonyms while peddling the phony items including “Donovan Kelly” and “Bruce Kelly.”
It was the art forgeries that initially drew the attention of federal investigators and the indictment cited multiple cases of fraudulent works.
An affidavit filed at the time indicated 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’.”
“Christy Mathewson baseballs, Babe Ruth signed bats, game-used bats. This guy could do it all,” Beckett Authentication’s Steve Grad told us after news of the raid was reported. “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).”
Grad called Henkel “one of the biggest forgers in the entire history of the business.”
A former sports auction house proprietor told SC Daily at the time that he suspected Henkel was involved in peddling bogus historic sports memorabilia for nearly 20 years, calling the work “very sophisticated.”
Henkel and bogus “straw sellers” recruited by Mark Henkel allegedly provided a false provenance, or history, for numerous items, including a painting by Gertrude Abercrombie and baseballs or bats purportedly signed by Lou Gehrig, Babe Ruth, Honus Wagner, and Cy Young, as a means to falsely portray the items as genuine to potential buyers. Paparella, one of the alleged straw sellers, schemed to conceal the Henkels’ involvement with the items in an effort to pass them off as genuine, the indictment states.
Prosecutors say the alleged fraud scheme began in 2005 and continued until 2020. According to the indictment, many of the forged items were sold for more than $100,000 based on the false histories provided by the Henkels or the straw sellers. The indictment cited the sale of fraudulent Christy Mathewson and Honus Wagner baseballs at the MLB Fan Fest Auction in 2005, both carrying made up stories of provenance. The two items sold for $133,000.
In 2015, the indictment states that the Henkels traveled with a relative to a memorabilia show, with the relative agreeing to provide a false history of the bat. It was rejected for consignment, however, after it failed autograph authentication. Prosecutors say Henkel then later removed the signature and and the bat was then sold for $52,680.
According to the indictment, auction houses and art galleries in numerous states and in London, were among those duped by the forgeries.