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 counterfeit Lichtenstein print
A counterfeit Roy Lichtenstein
 

By the early 2000s, powerful new ways had evolved to sell the old masters. Zabrin was introduced to these advances by a client who had previously sold art only at auctions. “All of a sudden,” Zabrin remembers, “he was selling a lot of pieces without doing a lot of work.” The reason was eBay—an auction to the world that could be run out of your garage.

As Zabrin visited the client to deliver merchandise, he got to know the computer geek behind the sudden success, who we will call “Brian” (he has yet to be charged for any related offenses). Besides setting up auctions on eBay, Brian had also built a website for the client. Since Zabrin seemed to be the man with the goods, Brian approached him with a deal. “He told me he was thinking of leaving and that he could do the same type of business for me,” Zabrin remembers. “He thought we could make a lot of money together.”

Before long, Brian was camped out with his laptop and PCs in the bedroom of the Zabrins’ daughter who had gone off to college. Zabrin came up with the site’s name—FineArtsMasters.com—and his partner did the rest: posting the auctions on eBay and listing the prints on the new website.

Zabrin stood back and waited for the geyser to blow. Soon dollars—in the hundreds of thousands—were gushing into his PayPal account. Some days Brian, who packed the prints at the dining table, could not handle the orders on his own. Zabrin had to rush to the rescue with armfuls of shipping tubes and rolls of labels—all to keep timely delivery and their precious five-star rating on eBay.

Fueling the sales surge was the best source Zabrin had ever found, an Italian dealer named Elio Bonfiglioli. A Chicago gallery owner had been the first to call Zabrin about Bonfiglioli, who had sold him what looked to be an authentic Miró at a fantastically low price. Zabrin tracked Bonfiglioli down in Italy, and two weeks later the dealer was on a plane to Chicago. “We hit it off instantly,” Zabrin says.

Bonfiglioli looked and acted like Roberto Benigni, the Italian movie star who had won an Oscar a few years earlier for his role in Life Is Beautiful. Zabrin had finally met his clownish match. “Elio spoke in broken English that was so funny,” Ricki says, “we would all start to laugh before he opened his mouth.”

But there was nothing funny about his prints. “They were so good, at first I thought they were real,” Zabrin says. “But he started making little remarks like, ‘All prints are fake.’ Then, as I got to deal with him more, I would get better prices for buying more, which meant he was getting them made.” Eventually Zabrin discovered that Bonfiglioli’s forgeries were created by experienced printmakers in Italy and Spain.

Despite his growing sales and the impeccable merchandise, Zabrin knew that there really was such a thing as too much success—especially if it attracted attention from the authorities. He had to keep the lid on and run the website and eBay auctions like a cottage industry.

But Brian was not content with a cottage. Now sophisticated in the world of unlimited edition prints, he wanted a space in River North near all the other galleries. And Zabrin, still unsophisticated about computers, could do little to stop him.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, another name would suddenly blast in from the past—Leon Amiel. Not the dead patriarch, but Leon Jr., son of Kathryn and brother of Sarina. Unlike them, he had not been involved enough in the counterfeiting operation to go to prison. But now he was knee-deep in the business, attempting to market a hidden stash of the old man’s best masters.

Amiel first contacted Zabrin through instant messaging. “I would get messages from someone claiming to be Jason,” Zabrin recalls. “He was supposed to be an assistant working for Leon Amiel. He would say that Leon was out of the office playing cards, and although Leon didn’t want to deal with me, Jason would.” All the time, Zabrin knew it was really Leon sending the messages.

Against his better judgment, Zabrin put through some orders for Chagall prints, which had been particularly hard to find after the demise of Leon Sr. and the arrest of his widow and daughters. More orders followed for other artists as well.

What Zabrin didn’t know was that Amiel had been suspended by eBay because of complaints from his buyers, and while he depended on Zabrin and other dealers to post his prints on consignment, he continued to flout the site’s rules by putting in phony bids to inflate the prices.

All of this fraudulent activity had not gone unnoticed by either eBay or the feds. Since computer scams are considered wire fraud, the first investigations were conducted by the FBI. But because most eBay sellers ship prints through the mail, postal inspectors were brought in as well.

John Donnelly was the Chicago postal inspector assigned to the case in 2006, long after Jim Tendick had left the city. Coincidentally, in his previous job, Donnelly had been a probation officer for Donald Austin, the Chicago gallery owner the feds had convicted thanks to Zabrin’s testimony. For Donnelly, the names bubbling up to the surface with the eBay complaints sounded very familiar—especially the man in the middle of all the action.

On the morning of May 6, 2006, federal agents massed again outside Zabrin’s Northbrook home. This time, their appearance did not shock him. In fact, he says, he was expecting it. “Different people told me that postal inspectors had interviewed them about my packages and asked what kind of person I was,” Zabrin recalls. “I knew it was a matter of time.”

First came the warrants, then a lecture from the assistant U.S. attorney and the request for cooperation. “Zabrin knew the drill,” Donnelly says, “and he was ready to do what was necessary to reduce his sentence.”

But even though Zabrin professed his willingness to help, Donnelly had no idea just how helpful he would be. “When we had him wired up,” Donnelly says, “it was like we had a perfectly programmed robot. He understood the elements of the crime and exactly what we needed to prove that the targets knew they were selling fakes.”

To incriminate Amiel, Zabrin simply had to take his phone calls. “Zabrin knew how much Leon loved to gossip,” Donnelly says. “They would just go on and on about everyone else’s business and all the stuff they were selling to them.” (In October 2010, Amiel pleaded guilty to one count of mail fraud and was sentenced last June to two years.)

With the advances in surveillance technology, Zabrin could also be wired for video. “The camera lens was so tiny, it could film through my buttonhole,” he says. He wore the camera when he moved among the booths at Artexpo, where he recorded an Amiel associate describing his methods for copying Picasso prints and how they “looked so good.”

Zabrin claims he also wore a wire during a conversation with the Chicago gallery owner Alan Kass but says this brought him no satisfaction. “It felt shitty,” he says. Their friendship went back to the eighties. Kass/Meridian—with the gallery’s banner fluttering above the restaurant Nacional 27, at Huron and Orleans Streets—had become a landmark on the River North art scene. Kass sold the work of living artists, but from the beginning he had made Zabrin’s master prints a staple of the business. (At presstime, Kass has plead not guilty to knowingly selling fakes and is preparing for trial.)

Zabrin had fewer reservations about stinging James Kennedy, a virtual caricature of the dealer con artist. A bowling ball of a man, Kennedy had beady blue eyes and long blond hair that he wore in a mullet. According to court documents, he partied hard, with alcohol and drugs, and although married, boasted in graphic detail about his sexual conquests, claiming that he had acquired original Picasso drawings (all fakes) after he had an affair with the master’s daughter Paloma.

“In the beginning,” Zabrin says, “he was fun and outgoing, but the drugs made him too outgoing.” Kennedy was brazen about his forgery. He would buy prints from Amiel and add the signature himself. He was so proud of his handiwork that he burst into the Zabrins’ living room one afternoon while Zabrin was with Brian during the early days of the website. As Zabrin recalls, Kennedy held up a print and proclaimed, “Here’s the latest and the fakest.”

Zabrin angrily pulled him from the room. “Shut up,” he hissed. “[Brian] doesn’t know about this.” But soon after, in a crowded designer frame shop, Zabrin watched Kennedy forge a signature with a flourish.

Once wired by the feds, Zabrin would meet for coffee with Kennedy, who needed little prompting to talk about his crimes. Often they got together in a Starbucks in Deerfield. Even in those cramped confines, Kennedy had no hesitation about whipping out his pen to lay down a forged signature—right in view of Zabrin’s buttonhole camera.

Eventually Kennedy’s behavior became more manic, and Zabrin wondered how he would react when the feds finally lowered the boom. “He thought he could get away with it. He was so coked up and crazy, he was like a time bomb ready to explode.”

 

Photograph: Candice C. Cusic/Chicago Tribune

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