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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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Michael Zabrin and his wife, Ricki
The calm before the storm: Michael Zabrin and his wife, Ricki, at a charity ball in the early 1990s

Often those who were caught up in the shady world of limited edition art prints claimed connections to the great masters that later proved false. But in the case of Leon Amiel, there is no doubt that he had legitimate ties to legendary artists, and for a while these connections offered him protection from the authorities.

Although born in New York, he developed a love for all things French while stationed in France during World War II. He returned stateside—briefly using Léon as his first name—and operated a few French bookstores before he started Leon Amiel Publisher, listing offices in New York City and Paris. He specialized in books about 20th-century art and professed to be a trusted friend of the featured artists. He published more than a dozen volumes on Miró and was the author of one. Amiel wrote that he had inspired Chagall’s Exodus series of paintings when he commissioned him to illustrate a Hagaddah, the prayer book for the Passover service. Amiel’s wife, Hilda, claimed that they were on such intimate terms with Dali that the artist asked their 28-year-old daughter to dance for him in the nude (she refused).

Whatever the truth about Amiel’s actual relationship with the stars, investigators now believe that he used the illustration plates from his books in ways that the artists never intended or authorized—namely, to mass-produce their works and pass off the fraudulent copies as authentic limited editions. His operations geared up in 1972, when he imported several high-speed color printing presses from France.

Miró prints were more complicated to reproduce on Amiel’s presses since most had been etched by the artist on a copper plate colored with special tints. Amiel supposedly imported his phony etchings from craftsmen in France.

It is now believed that Amiel was worth as much as $40 million by the mideighties—most of it made through illicit prints. Alternately charming and crude, he had both the appearance and manner of Zero Mostel’s character in The Producers. While he kept the religiously observant Hilda and his two daughters in a mansion on Long Island, he spent most nights with his mistress in a Manhattan pied-à-terre. When he did return to the family home, investigators say, it was to play pinochle with his pals. Despite Amiel’s reputation for wealth and European refinement, a Long Island neighbor later told reporters that he would belch loudly and once showed up for lunch in his pajamas.

When, on occasion, fraudulent prints were tracked back to him, Amiel was ready with a cagey reply. He hinted at nebulous authorizations from the artist, much like the ones he often had for his books, or pretended that the print was never meant to be more than a “lithographic interpretation.” In regard to the galleries that sold his prints as authentic limited editions, he told The New York Times, “I don’t know how these people sell to the public. What they claim and how they sell it is something I don’t get involved with.”

To maintain his insulation from “these people,” Amiel depended on a tiny band of only the most trusted dealers. He rebuffed Zabrin’s advances until Zabrin discovered that one of his best friends in the art world was distantly related to Amiel. It still took months before Zabrin was granted an audience. An Amiel employee picked him up at LaGuardia Airport in the boss’s Rolls-Royce and then, to Zabrin’s surprise, instead of heading toward Manhattan, drove to an industrial park in Secaucus, New Jersey. There the company was ensconced in a sprawling one-story brick complex that appeared more suited to a grocery warehouse than a book publisher.

There was nothing impressive about the interior either. Amiel, wearing work clothes, greeted Zabrin warmly and then took him to his office to show the prints he had ready for sale. Zabrin made an initial buy of about $25,000. He would sell the lot for $50,000.

From what Zabrin could see, Leon Amiel Publisher was a family business. His meetings with Amiel were often interrupted by Amiel’s middle-aged daughter Kathryn, who was usually in a state of high anxiety, which her father would allay in a calming voice. Her son, oddly named Leon Jr., swept up in the back, and Amiel’s brother, Sam, would drive Zabrin back to the airport, sometimes with a jar of his homemade pickles as a parting gift.

Amiel made little pretext of his prints’ authenticity. Most of those that he displayed had no signature. If Zabrin chose any for purchase, he remembers, “his daughter taught me to leave the room.” When he was called back half an hour later, the masters had seemingly materialized like the tooth fairy and left behind their signatures.

With access to such a mother lode, Zabrin saw his sales shoot above $1 million a year. His profits skyrocketed too. A Miró he bought from Amiel for $1,500 could easily fetch $3,500 from a gallery—and sometimes as much as $10,000. He started placing ads for his prints in the art trade magazines, with the phone number 498-MIRO.

But Ricki kept her job behind the makeup counter. Zabrin’s success only ratcheted up his compulsive behavior, and sometimes he could spend as much as he made. Often his temptation was art. As soon as he sold one portfolio, he’d invest in another. Ricki remembers him covering the living room floor—wall to wall—with his latest set of prints, reveling in the shapes and colors. But there were other temptations too: an expensive bout with cocaine (he never drank) and multiple gambling junkets to Las Vegas and Lake Tahoe.

Driving Zabrin’s frenetic behavior were ominous clouds that started to hang over the world of fine-art prints in the late eighties. One New York gallery started to use the same boiler-room tactics that had been used to sell real estate and penny stocks. Center Art Galleries, Zabrin’s big Hawaiian client, was slicker but just as relentless, providing constant updates about the supposedly escalating values of prints and reminders that the decrepit master Dali was at death’s door (he finally did die in 1989).

It was one thing for an art lover to frame a print, hang it on the wall, and brag about the artist’s signature. It was quite another thing for an art investor to leave the print in the shipping tube and store it in a safe place like a savings bond, waiting for it to appreciate. When those buyers discovered the true value of their investment, they were not just disappointed. They felt robbed. Some sued galleries. Others complained to the Federal Trade Commission. Since the offers and often the prints were sent through the mail, postal inspectors led the investigations, and in 1987, with warrants from the U.S. attorney, the feds raided Center Art Galleries in Hawaii and seized all the Dali prints.

 

Photograph: Courtesy of Ricki Zabrin

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