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Confessions of Art Fraud King Michael Zabrin

MASTER FLEECE: At the center of an art fraud ring that circled the globe and operated for decades, the Northbrook man was both an eager peddler of fake prints by famous painters and a wire-wearing informant for federal investigators—twice.

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A fake Picasso and Michael Zabrin
A counterfeit Picasso, just one of the high-quality fakes in Michael Zabrin’s global scam that made millions of dollars and spanned decades
 

When Ricki Zabrin looks back on her life in the eighties, she remembers how her Northbrook neighbors used to wonder about her husband. Unlike the button-down breadwinners on the block who set off for the office each day in pinstriped suits with attaché cases in hand, Michael worked from home. He was a birdlike little man with a carefully trimmed mustache and styled curlicues of black hair that cascaded to his shoulders. When he did dart out of the house, he was in full plumage, which could mean a fire-engine-red suit and a purple tie with a belt and boots made of matching alligator skin. His wheels were equally flashy: a sleek Porsche Carrera. “Of course,” Ricki laughs, “everyone thought he was a drug dealer.”

Her husband was indeed a dealer, but what he dealt could not have been more different from dope, and that’s what she found so funny. Zabrin sold art, and not just any art—primarily limited edition prints from the 20th-century masters Joan Miró, Marc Chagall, Pablo Picasso, and Salvador Dali. A consummate salesman with a whimsical sense of humor, he plied the best-known gallery owners in Chicago and across the country, wielding a portfolio case as big as he was. According to Ricki, his clients were always eager to meet with him—“sometimes,” she says, “just to see what he was wearing.”

More recently, Zabrin’s outfit would have been easier to predict. For almost three years, he has worn a pumpkin-colored canvas jumpsuit issued by the Kankakee County jail. When the 59-year-old Zabrin sat for an interview this past July, few traces of the natty, mirthful hipster remained. A grease-pencil number was scrawled over his breast pocket, and a yellowed, tattered undershirt showed above his top button. His clean-shaven face was drawn and pale; the curly hair closely shorn. His figure, once so slight, had puffed out like a penguin’s as he sat cooped up in the crowded jail, waiting for transfer to a federal prison. In all the time he’d been there, he said, “I haven’t seen the light of day.” He grew more ashen as he contemplated the confinement to come. Even with time served, he faced at least another four years for mail fraud—all totaled, a relatively heavy sentence for a nonviolent offender; more fitting for a drug dealer than an art dealer.

But like the artwork he sold, there are few straight lines or sharp corners to Michael Zabrin’s story—starting with the fact that this was not his first sentence for fraud. A decade before, he took a plea for the same offense: selling prints that were not limited editions, as he claimed, but unauthorized, unlimited reproductions with forged signatures.

Sales of such fraudulent art in the United States are in the “many millions of dollars” each year, according to Sharon Flescher, the executive director of the International Foundation for Art Research. Much like the drug trade, those who produce the goods are insulated from the ultimate consumers through elaborate international distribution syndicates that use layers of dealers and retailers.

However, the same government investigators who have tried to stop this fraud freely admit that no civilian has done more to expose the counterfeit art syndicates than Michael Zabrin—both during the nineties and in the new millennium. He not only identified key players in the trade but also engaged in taped conversations to incriminate them. His efforts helped shut down the largest known source of fake prints and some of the prestigious galleries and dealers selling those prints. But while his stellar cooperation brought Zabrin a reduced sentence the first time around, his lawyer argues that it only got him into more trouble the second time, leading to behavior that proved more detrimental than his initial charges.

Zabrin’s personal troubles aside, how did a self-made hustler from the streets of Chicago’s North Side, who could count his overseas trips on one hand, come to be at the center of an international fraud ring with tentacles that stretched from the world’s toniest art galleries to clandestine printing plants in New Jersey, Italy, and Spain? An even bigger question: Why, after wrecking so much of the illegal trade the first time, did he return to it again? The answer is as uncomfortable for Zabrin as for the gallery owners who continued to clamor for his tainted goods.

Like most of the people he worked with in the art world, Michael Zabrin did not have a background in art. Growing up in the striving middle-class neighborhood of Rogers Park, he set his sights on commerce instead. As a teenager, he started his own business, cleaning boats in Burnham Harbor. After graduating college, he worked at the Chicago Board Options Exchange and then, in 1976, moved to San Francisco, where he bought a seat to sell options on that city’s new exchange. Within a year, he says, “I bombed out.”

Zabrin returned to Chicago with his savings gone. But his desire to wheel and deal persisted. Back in his teens, on the advice of a friend’s mother, he had started buying collectibles. “She collected Boehm porcelain animal figurines and would tell me how the value kept going up,” he recalls. At first, Zabrin bought Boehm pieces. Later he began collecting prints as well: a Dali here, a Norman Rockwell there, or a Victor Vasarely, the op art pioneer who drew large 3-D geometric shapes in bright colors. He acquired each piece like a find in a flea market, hoping that one day it would go up in price. Although collecting art had been no more than a hobby, he began to wonder if it could be a career.

In 1977, a friend encouraged Zabrin to ask an enterprising art dealer for a job. With his black goatee and accent, Jean-Paul Loup was the epitome of the French art aficionado, but he quickly put Zabrin at ease. As luck would have it, he had a large number of Dali prints he had picked up in France, and he needed someone to travel around the States to show the works to gallery owners.

Although Loup did not have his own gallery, he sold directly to the public through the mail, describing himself as “probably the largest retailer of graphics by Salvador Dali.” One of his packets contained a glossy photograph of Dali’s Venice. Offering a price of $375 for the lithograph, Loup claimed that the same piece might cost $600 to $850 in “an average American gallery.” He added (in all capital letters): “I think that this will be the last opportunity you will ever have to acquire such a large and superb lithograph hand-signed by Salvador Dali at such a low price.”

He also promised to include with each purchase a certificate of authenticity, which would vouch that the print was issued in an edition limited to 450. He vowed that each piece was marked with a unique number and that the “lithographic plates were destroyed upon completion. Therefore, no further edition will ever be pulled.” Loup’s assurance that there would be no more prints left the impression that the limited edition could only go up in value.

According to Zabrin, the gallery owners rarely looked for such assurances of authenticity. In fact, as he soon discovered, selling art to galleries was not much different from selling anything else. All he had to do was call for appointments, show up on time with the case of prints, and listen to the client. He found most gallery owners to be a fun-loving bunch, so he could wine and dine them at lunch or dinner. When he returned for another visit, he would bring a little gift and the master prints that they were most likely to sell.

Before long, he learned about prints that some gallery owners were unable to sell. On consignment, he would shop those pieces to other clients who might find them more suitable. Soon he was making more from these consignments than he was from Loup, so he set off on his own to become an independent dealer. He quickly settled on the quartet of masters that would be his stock-in-trade: Miró, Chagall, Picasso, Dali.

In 1979, during one of her regular visits to marshall Field’s, Zabrin’s mother sized up a button-cute brunette behind the makeup counter and decided the young lady would be a perfect match for her son—she had even majored in art. But, says Ricki, “by the time I met him, he knew more about art than I ever learned in school.” So of course she loved his job. “He just seemed to meet the coolest people, and they got him into the coolest places,” Ricki remembers. “They all really liked Michael and how nutty he could be. It would bring out their crazy side too. Even the ones who were very suit-and-tie.”

When the couple married in November 1982, they had their honeymoon in Hawaii as the guests of Bill Mett, the owner of Center Art Galleries, who had quickly become one of Zabrin’s biggest customers. Originally a lawyer and a businessman, Mett had bought his first gallery with the intention of converting it into a clothing store. But once he saw the whopping profit margins in art sales, especially from prints, his plans changed. He kept the gallery but upgraded the lighting and décor to make art as alluring as the jewelry and handbags in Hawaii’s high-priced boutiques. He expanded the concept across the islands, opening locations that adjoined hotels or malls favored by tourists.

Back on the mainland, other gallery owners had also embarked on rapid upscale expansions. These art megamerchants adopted the silken pressure tactics perfected by other luxury retailers to goose sales, such as the weekend trunk show—a favorite of the fashion boutiques—or Sotheby’s-like auctions.

Zabrin became so busy lugging his oversize case to trunk shows and auctions that he got a hernia. Sales were no longer a problem. Prints from his quartet of masters had practically fueled the nationwide gallery expansion on their own. His future now depended on finding a reliable source for his merchandise.

Increasingly, Zabrin had come to rely on one man, Philip Coffaro of Mineola, Long Island. His gallery was also, unabashedly, a frame shop. With its narrow windows and barnlike façade, it could have been a video store or a pizza parlor. In person, Coffaro had a similar unprepossessing vibe. He dressed in casual clothes and kept his hair pulled back in a ponytail. But despite appearances, he was tremendously influential in New York’s art community as the founder of Artexpo, now among the biggest art shows in the world and held each year in Manhattan.

Although Coffaro had no trouble supplying his own certificates of authenticity for the prints Zabrin purchased, it became clear that “limited edition” was a fairly transparent fiction. “It couldn’t have been too limited,” Zabrin says, “if I could buy as much as I wanted of any print. I would go out to see Phil every six weeks, and he’d ask what I needed beforehand so he could have it ready. I even got a volume discount.”

It wasn’t long before Zabrin learned that Coffaro had his own major source for prints. In the world of fraudulent art, this source proved to be the equivalent of all the poppy fields of Afghanistan and all the drug lords of Mexico rolled into one. Most surprising, he was a respected New York publisher named Leon Amiel.

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Photograph: (Picasso print) Candice C. Cusic/Chicago Tribune

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