By Madelia Hickman Ring
DETROIT, MICH. – The FBI has raided the Michigan home of an artist suspected of orchestrating a forgery ring for folk paintings and sports memorabilia. On July 8, The Detroit News reported that the Traverse City, Mich., home of Donald “D.B.” Henkel, 60, was the target of a two-day raid by the FBI, the subject of an investigation into the sale of forged works by blue-chip American artists to collectors and galleries since 2016. According to the News, “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. A search warrant affidavit indicates that 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.”
Eight paintings have been identified by the FBI as probable forgeries. Five of the works were purported to be previously undiscovered works by George Ault, who was active in the 1940s. An artist who was working in the 1970s in a similar style – Ralston Crawford – was the supposed artist of two works. A circa 1970s work attributed to Surrealist artist Gertrude Abercrombie was the last in the group.
Two entities identified as possibly handling forged works were New York City gallery Hirschl & Adler and Chicago auction house Leslie Hindman.
The scheme first came to light in 2016 after Henkel sold through Hindman a work by Ralston Crawford that Henkel claimed had been in the collection of Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art dean Henry Hotz Jr, who had been a friend of the artist. A year later, “The Homestead” purported to be by George Ault, failed to appear in the artist’s archives and then subsequently it was discovered, through conservation, to include materials that were not available at the time Ault would have painted the work. In March 2019, red flags were again raised when a work insured at $1,000 for shipping records was sold by Henkel at auction for nearly $95,000.
Details surrounding forgery of sports memorabilia include selling baseball bats purported to have been used by Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig for $60,000 and $120,000, respectively; Henkel and another person benefited from the sale of both items.
The Detroit News said that “the team of more than 30 FBI agents who descended on Henkel’s property Tuesday 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 an FBI agent.”
Artnet News subsequently reported on this story on July 9.