Men charged in fake sports memorabilia scheme involving bogus baseballs, bats, and paintings

Some of the bogus items included baseballs and bats purportedly signed by Lou Gehrig, Babe Ruth, Honus Wagner, and Cy Young, the Justice Department said

Federal authorities have charged two Michigan brothers and a Florida man in connection with an art and sports memorabilia scheme spanning 15 years that involved forged paintings and bogus autographs from some of baseball's most legendary figures, according to the Justice Department.

In a 34-page indictment unsealed Thursday, federal prosecutors charged Donald Henkel, 61, Mark Henkel, 66, and Raymond Paparella, of Boca Raton, Florida, with wire fraud in connection with the scheme, which allegedly ran from 2005 to 2020.

Mark Henkel faces an additional charge of witness tampering for allegedly persuading a co-schemer to make a false statement to law enforcement. All three men pleaded not guilty Thursday in a Chicago federal court. 

Donald Henkel is accused of creating and selling items that were altered with fake autographs to baseballs and model bats that featured the names of baseball greats Lou Gehrig, Babe Ruth, Honus Wagner, and Cy Young in an effort to increase their value. 


Sports fraud scheme.

Babe Ruth's 500th home run bat is shown before it goes up for auction by SCP Auctions in Laguna Niguel, California in 2019. Three men were charged this week with creating fake sports memorabilia, including autographs they claimed came from the legend (Reuters)

He also allegedly applied false autographs or signatures to paintings and other memorabilia to Hollywood and music collectibles.

Donald Henkel also worked with his brother to provide false histories for the items to potential buyers, prosecutors said. 

Paparella and others were allegedly recruited acted as "straw sellers" to conceal the brothers' involvement and to pass off the items as legitimate.

Many of the forged items sold for more than $100,000, authorities said.

Attorney Damon Cheronis, who represents Paparella, told the Chicago Tribune in a statement that his client "looks forward to the truth surrounding these allegations being presented in a court of law."

Among the victims of the fraud were art galleries and auction houses in California, New York, Texas, Pennsylvania, Michigan and London, the indictment said. 

A 2020 Detroit News article described an FBI raid on Donald Henkel's home in Traverse City during an investigation into the selling of forged paintings. 

Babe Ruth at Yankee Stadium

Babe Ruth and his wife Claire pose for a photo in Yankee Stadium before a game in 1930. (Mark Rucker/Transcendental Graphics, Getty Images / Getty Images)

The manager of Hirschl & Adler in New York City, one of the country’s top American art galleries, was quoted as saying the gallery spent $500,000 on paintings linked to the scheme. 


"These were very beautiful – fake or not," she told the newspaper. "Whoever did this is quite an accomplished artist — just not the artist he or she purported to be."