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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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LeRoy Neiman and Michael Zabrin with Neiman's limited-edition Michael Jordan print
An honest deal: In 1989, Zabrin suggested to LeRoy Neiman that he celebrate Michael Jordan of the Chicago Bulls with a limited edition print; the artist finished the piece in 1991.
 

For Michael Zabrin, the federal investigations still seemed as far removed as the 50th state. He was getting increased requests for certificates of authenticity, so he created his own form, bearing the name Michael Zabrin Fine Arts, which he would stamp with a notary-style seal to make it look more official. But behind the scenes, the real value of the prints was something he joked about with the gallery owners. “I would sell a hundred Picassos for $10,000 each,” he recalls, “and sometimes on the invoice I would write, ‘One hundred pieces of shit.’”

A greater concern would be the health of Leon Amiel. Rumors about a serious illness proved true when he died from liver cancer in October 1988 at the age of 67.

Hilda and her daughters, Kathryn and Joanne, took control of the business, moving most operations to an old Long Island carpet factory near their home. No doubt sensitive to all the investigations involving Amiel prints, they changed the name of the business to Original Artworks and made the Long Island dealer Coffaro their biggest distributor.

Even though his pipeline to the master prints was now rerouted back through Coffaro, Zabrin still had a galaxy of connections in the gallery universe to help him diversify. He says that at least half of the art he sold was legitimate. He was a flamboyant fixture at Artexpo in New York, sometimes making as much as $50,000 in a week but also staying on the lookout for up-and-coming artists he could represent. He met luminaries such as Peter Max, the longhaired pied piper of hippie Day-Glo poster art. Ricki recalls that Max would summon Zabrin to his home on Riverside Drive in Manhattan, doodle on a piece of paper, and ask, “How much would you give me for this?” When Max set up these meetings, Ricki says, “he would tell Michael to bring plenty of cash.” Zabrin tried to leverage the doodle sprees into a limited print deal. When Max backed out at the last minute and took the idea to a major publisher, Zabrin recovered some of his expenses through a lawsuit. (In 1997, Max pleaded guilty for not paying taxes on art sales of $1.1 million and was sentenced to community service.)

Zabrin was much more successful with his courtship of LeRoy Neiman, whose confetti-style oil paintings brightened the pages of Sports Illustrated and Playboy. They met through a casino pit boss, but Zabrin quickly proved his value to Neiman by getting him good prices from galleries for his magazine sketches and cutouts. One night in 1989, as Michael Jordan fever was burning through the sports world, Zabrin turned on the TV to watch a Chicago Bulls basketball game. The camera caught Neiman, with his outlandishly long twirled mustache, sketching from the sidelines. The next day, Zabrin called Neiman to propose a limited edition print of a Jordan painting that would be autographed by both the artist and the basketball star, with Jordan’s proceeds going to his charitable foundation.  For Zabrin, Michael Jordan had opened the door to an entirely legit enterprise that melded art with collectible memorabilia. He teed up the Chicago Bears’ legendary running back, Walter Payton, as his sequel.

One afternoon in October 1990, with all of these new opportunities swirling around him, Zabrin was wakened from a nap. He heard the doorbell and then the anguished cries of his housekeeper. He jumped out of bed and looked outside to see his townhouse surrounded by men in blue windbreakers. Already some were trooping through his dining room and down into his sunken living room, where framed art hung from the walls as if in a gallery. At first, still half-asleep, he had no idea what they wanted. But when he went downstairs, an assistant U.S. attorney and a postal inspector pushed forward with credentials to identify themselves. It was a raid, and Zabrin could only think, “I’m screwed.”

* * *

When complaints to the FTC about fraudulent art continued to mount during the late eighties, much of the federal criminal investigation fell to Jack Ellis, a postal inspector based in New York City, where the first print boiler-room cases were prosecuted. Ellis would eventually dub his probe Operation Bogart, as in “bogus art.” “I felt that the only way we could get ahead of the crime was to find the source,” Ellis says, “and I realized pretty quickly that Leon Amiel was the biggest player.” After Amiel died in 1988, Ellis says, “we figured his business would die with him.”

Instead, the Amiel presses—under the more reckless management of Amiel’s widow and daughters—would find another life. Prints that the dead patriarch may have withheld because of shoddy work-manship or amateurish signatures were flushed through the network. Worse yet,  from Ellis’s perspective, by filtering orders through Coffaro, Hilda and her daughters “were even more insulated from the trade than Leon.”

As the postal inspectors assembled lists of all the galleries with suspect Amiel prints, there was one other common thread—a dealer who appeared to be the biggest nationwide distributor: Michael Zabrin.

In 1990, Ellis enlisted his counterpart in the Midwest, Jim Tendick, to check out Zabrin and orchestrate a sting. Tendick had a female undercover agent call Zabrin to set up an appointment. Zabrin first met her in Washington, D.C., and then she came to see him in Northbrook. He remembers that she bought $17,000 in prints and later $10,000 more.

Tendick says that his agent selected only titles “that we knew to be high-quality fakes.” When she requested certificates of authenticity, Zabrin dutifully provided the ones with the Michael Zabrin Fine Arts stamp.

During the raid at Zabrin’s house, as agents rifled through the hanging art racks and dozens of flat file drawers in basement print rooms, the assistant U.S. attorney took Zabrin aside to serve the warrant. Soon after, Tendick arrived to talk some sense. He recalls that the prosecutor told Zabrin, “Now’s your chance to buy a ticket for the train or watch it leave the station.” Zabrin quickly agreed to help them, but Tendick warned him, “You have to keep your mouth shut. If people know you’re cooperating in a criminal investigation, you’re of no use to us.”

But in the beginning, even if Zabrin did stay undercover, Tendick wondered how useful he could be. “He was hard to control; very goofy and childish.” He could dissolve into giggle fits when he was strapped to the body wire or when a phone tap clicked on. Then he had trouble concentrating on his talking points, Tendick says, “like a little kid who wants to go play with his toys.”

There could be no margin for error with Zabrin’s targets—especially Phil Coffaro, whom the inspectors already knew to be as slick and slippery as Leon Amiel. They needed unequivocal proof that Coffaro realized that fake Amiel prints were being sold as though they were authentic.

To Tendick’s surprise, Coffaro and everyone else who spoke to Zabrin were disarmed by his goofy behavior. During one recorded call with Zabrin, Coffaro revealed why Amiel had stored his fakes without signatures—in case his warehouse was raided. On another taped call, Coffaro commiserated with Zabrin about the declining quality of Amiel prints since Amiel’s death. He told Zabrin that after he had rejected one batch, Amiel’s daughter Kathryn replied, “Look, I know the [prints] are terrible. My mother had my uncle signing them, but Sarina [Kathryn’s daughter] will be coming home soon [from college], and they will be better.”

In July 1991, postal inspectors in New York simultaneously raided Coffaro’s gallery and frame shop and the Amiels’ facilities. Coffaro quickly understood how much he had been incriminated during the Zabrin calls and meetings, so he, too, offered full cooperation. Almost immediately the inspectors went to work sorting through the Amiels’ old carpet factory, where they ultimately tallied 50,000 fake Dali prints, 20,000 Mirós, 2,200 Picassos, and 650 Chagalls. The authorities also seized from the women more than $4 million in cash, bank accounts, real estate, and luxury cars.

When New York’s chief postal inspector held a press conference about the haul, he proclaimed, “We believe this has cut off the single largest source of counterfeit prints of famous artists.” Although Hilda would die from cancer before the charges came to trial nearly three years later, her daughters and granddaughter would be convicted. Kathryn was sentenced to 78 months, Joanne to 46, and Sarina to 33. Besides testifying against the Amiels, Zabrin was a key witness in the trials of several gallery owners, including Chicago’s Donald Austin, a former barber who had two galleries on the Magnificent Mile and 28 other locations across the country. He was convicted in 1994 and sentenced to nearly nine years.

“It’s no exaggeration to say that Michael was the linchpin for Operation Bogart and all the convictions that resulted from that,” says Tendick. “And because he helped us, we helped him.”

Zabrin pleaded guilty to just two counts of mail fraud in 1985—his earliest documented offense. In return, in January 1994, the judge sentenced him to a year and a day in prison; a relative slap on the wrist compared with the punishment meted out to Austin and the Amiels.

In April 1994, Zabrin was sent to serve his sentence at a low-security prison camp in Marion, Illinois, six hours from home. “At first, I was scared shitless,” he remembers. “I had no idea what to expect, but after I got acclimated and realized I could get along with everybody, it actually turned out to be fun. It was like a camp for bad boys.”

In only ten months, camp was over, and he was placed in a downtown Chicago halfway house, 30 minutes from home. Except for the pain of being separated from his wife and two daughters, who were then in the first and third grades, it had been almost too easy, he now admits.

As for his future livelihood, he felt that there was no other choice. “I went back to selling art,” he says. “It was the only thing I knew how to do. But I wasn’t going to have anything to do with any forgeries or any pieces that were phony.”

However, Zabrin quickly realized that the only dependable business for him lay with the master prints, because, he explains, “that’s where the money was.” Despite his incarceration, his network of gallery contacts remained intact. And despite all the bad press, galleries still pestered him for prints.

 

Photograph: Courtesy of Ricki Zabrin

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