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FBI raids ‘forgery factory’ of artwork and sports memorabilia

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Counterfeit sports memorabilia claiming to have belonged to Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and other sports legends, along with fake artwork that sold for six figures, were allegedly part of a forgery factory in a wooded Michigan home and barn that was raided by the FBI last week after a years-long investigation.

More than 30 FBI agents raided this house and barn last week as part of a years-long investigation into forged artwork and sports memorabilia. Photo courtesy of the FBI.

More than 30 FBI agents raided this house and barn last week as part of a years-long investigation into forged artwork and sports memorabilia. Photo courtesy of the FBI.

The Detroit News reported that the raid targeted Traverse City resident Donald “D.B.” Henkel, 60, a self-described artist accused of “orchestrating a years-long conspiracy involving previously unknown paintings by well-known artists.”

Law enforcement officials called it a national crime ring with conspirators operating in Metro Detroit and at least three other states. The FBI suspects the property was being used to produce artwork and memorabilia from the sports world and Hollywood.

D.B. Henkel is said to have received $299,000 from the sale of "Smith Silo," purported to have been painted by artist Ralston Crawford. Photo courtesy of Leslie Hindman Auctioneers.

D.B. Henkel is said to have received $299,000 from the sale of "Smith Silo," purported to have been painted by artist Ralston Crawford. Photo courtesy of Leslie Hindman Auctioneers.

The art forgeries were discovered by the FBI after learning the type of paint used in one composition did not exist at the time of the artwork’s supposed creation nearly 100 years ago.

Hirshl & Adler in New York City spent around $500,000 on paintings linked to the scheme.

“This is every dealer’s nightmare,” Elizabeth Feld of Hirshl & Adler told The Detroit News. “These were very beautiful, fake or not. Whoever did this is quite an accomplished artist, just not the artist he or she purported to be.”

The counterfeit sports memorabilia are said to include items linked to baseball legends Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and Willie Mays.

Sports memorabilia and tools to make them were discovered during the raid, as was a Mickey Mouse drawing autographed by Walt Disney. Photo courtesy of the FBI. 

Sports memorabilia and tools to make them were discovered during the raid, as was a Mickey Mouse drawing autographed by Walt Disney. Photo courtesy of the FBI. 

Since 2015, two accused co-conspirators sold a purported Babe Ruth bat for $60,000 and a Lou Gehrig bat for $120,000, an FBI agent told The Detroit News, adding most of the money was sent to Henkel and another person.

From The Detroit Free Press:

The FBI affidavit does not say the bat was counterfeit.

The timing of the Gehrig bat auction and price tag appears to match one sold by Hunt Auctions of Pennsylvania. According to the listing, the Gehrig bat belonged to a descendant of a bat boy who had met the New York Yankees legend.

Auction house President David Hunt said Wednesday he was unaware of the investigation.

Sports Collectors Digest reached out to Hunt for comment and is awaiting a response.

Chris Ivy, Director of Sports Memorabilia Auctions at Heritage Auctions, Dallas, told SCD’s sister publication Antique Trader that detecting forged items is “a constant battle, and this recent arrest is a welcomed development in the fight.

“There is nobody who takes this kind of criminal activity more seriously than Heritage, and that’s why the material we sell is subjected to a rigorous authentication process, both internally and through third-party expert services.”

The raid conducted by more than 30 FBI agents covered two days. The main building was reportedly filled with art supplies, paintings and other artwork in progress, along with baseball bats, baseballs and other memorabilia, an FBI agent told The Detroit News.

There have been no arrests.