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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.

(page 5 of 5)

A counterfeit Dali print being confuscated by a federal agent
Seized: In 2008, a federal agent handles a fake Dali print in the aftermath of a sting that relied heavily on Zabrin to implicate a second generation of suppliers and galleries

The explosion finally came on January 8, 2008, when Kennedy left a message on Zabrin’s voice mail. A few days earlier, Donnelly had confronted Kennedy and his lawyer with Zabrin’s audio and video recordings. “I thought you were my friend,” Kennedy’s message began. “You’re a dirty, lousy, no-good, cock-sucking, jagoff bastard. . . . They told me everything you done. I heard it, and I didn’t believe it. . . . And if I see you, I’m going to beat the living piss out of you, you jagoff prick.”

Zabrin forwarded the threat to Donnelly, who filed a federal complaint the next day against Kennedy for retaliating against a witness. Kennedy was arrested and locked up. Two months later, he was released, wearing an electronic monitoring device. In October 2008, he tore that off and fled the country—first heading to Canada, where he was turned away at the border, and then to Mexico, where he was nabbed two months later. (At presstime, Kennedy, who has pleaded guilty to wire fraud, mail fraud, and threatening a witness, still awaits sentencing.)

But for Donnelly, Kennedy was not the only threat to the art fraud investigation. The other was Michael Zabrin. As the postal inspector soon discovered, selling counterfeit art was not Zabrin’s only crime. He was also a serial shoplifter—of high-priced merchandise (designer handbags, crystal) at the finest stores (Neiman Marcus, Saks, Barneys) and at the worst possible times. Once he was nabbed just before he was to meet Donnelly and other investigators, following the 2006 raid on his house.

Zabrin makes no excuses for the shoplifting other than to say, “I never sold [anything] or made money off of it.”

His wife attributes the kleptomania to his “goofy” upbringing by a mother who, despite her wealth, was also caught shoplifting. “It’s something he does when he gets anxious,” Ricki explains.

She speaks with the insight of the many mental health professionals who have diagnosed Zabrin, according to court records, with “depression, generalized anxiety, a severe obsessive-compulsive disorder [and] a variety of related impulse control disorders,” all of which led him to addictive behavior.

Although the mental issues shadowed Zabrin from the start of their relationship, Ricki believes his depression surfaced after his first incarceration, when he realized that print fraud was the only way he could make a good living. In 2004, he attempted suicide by overdosing on sleeping pills, and thereafter he remained heavily medicated.

His anxiety was only exacerbated by his second arrest, his return to the role of secret informant, and the fear that he would be discovered. Financial stress made matters worse. Prohibited by the agents from selling fraudulent art prints and desperate to stave off foreclosure on his house, Zabrin tried another gambit. Using funds from an old partner, he purchased eight Chagall prints. But he then kept two for himself and told the partner that he had bought only six. He sold those two and pocketed the cash. Zabrin was convinced that the prints were authentic and paid accordingly. But the prints turned out to be fakes, and the whole scheme unraveled when Zabrin’s partner complained to Donnelly.

“It was bad enough that he tried to sell the art behind my back and cheat his partner,” Donnelly says. “But the fact that it was fraudulent art was even worse.” As a result, in June 2007, Donnelly had to swear out another complaint against Zabrin. His usefulness as a government witness had effectively come to an end, along with his protection against the state shoplifting charges. He received three years for retail theft and started serving in January 2009.

* * *

Of all the masters he sold, Michael Zabrin most appreciated the subtle genius of Joan Miró. For the uninitiated, Miró’s work appears to be the scattered splotches and disjointed lines that a child would make with a paintbrush. But look a little closer at the black bean shape in the center of La Femme aux Bijoux, a Zabrin favorite. Those bright colored spots could be the makeup on a dancing girl’s face; the ragged wishbone shape to each side could be the leg that she kicks up and holds aloft.

A judge or probation officer would need similar powers of artistic interpretation for a sympathetic reading of Zabrin’s criminal record. Otherwise the sheer number of cited incidents adds up to an ominous mass—especially in the unforgiving light of federal sentencing guidelines. A “life of crime” is how the assistant U.S. attorney put it in one court document.

Zabrin’s lawyer, Jeffrey Steinback, made an eloquent appeal for another view of his client when Zabrin was sentenced last June after pleading guilty to three counts of mail fraud. Zabrin, Steinback said during the hearing, was not a violent or greedy man. If anything, he was too sensitive to others’ needs and too generous in return. It was not just Zabrin’s myriad addictions that the court should consider, he argued, but an art industry still dependent on master prints.

But the judge chose to see the picture painted by the prosecution. When he pronounced the sentence of nine years and two months—which can be reduced to seven years with good behavior—a collective gasp went through the courtroom. Some law enforcement officials later told Ricki that they were as shocked by the sentence as she was.

While Ricki appreciated the sympathy, she couldn’t help but feel bitter. “The government would never have [prosecuted] the number of cases it did without him,” she says. “It didn’t matter that he couldn’t testify. Because his wire evidence was so strong, the targets all took guilty pleas.”

She is equally angry about all the dealers and gallery owners who profited from fraudulent prints and were never charged. “Michael absolutely took the fall,” she says. “He became the biggest scapegoat in the industry.”

Today, she still lives in the Northbrook house with one of her two daughters, holding down three jobs to pay the bills. Framed art continues to crowd the walls, all of it modern, but there are also life-size, lifelike plaster sculptures of a butler and a waitress, funky metal dogs, collectible cartoon figures, and intricate cityscape cutouts. In its eccentricity and eclecticism, the collection hovers around Ricki with Zabrin’s nervous presence. Sometimes, when she’s not feeling angry, she flips through photos from the old days, looking at some of the same people she now regrets that her husband ever met. “He used to be so much fun,” Ricki says. “I think about those times and I laugh so hard. But then I cry.”


Photograph: Candice C. Cusic/Chicago Tribune


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