When now-retired postal inspector John “Jack” Ellis destroyed nearly 100,000 pieces of fake artwork, he hoped it was the end of the fake-art ring he’d helped bust in the 1990s, but he had a feeling that wasn’t the case.
“We knew we didn’t get everything,” Ellis said.
He was right. Hidden stashes of fake “limited edition” prints purported to be authentic works by Marc Chagall, Salvador Dali, Pablo Picasso and Joan Miro, among others, surfaced in the late 1990s and the racket was back on.
Fast-forward to 2008, when charges came down against a group accused of selling fake prints – some just like the ones Ellis destroyed.
We knew several of the men charged in 2008, including Michael Zabrin and Leon Amiel Jr. had pleaded guilty and were set to be sentenced. Both had a history in the fake art world. Amiel Jr.’s grandfather is credited with starting the scam, and though he died before he could be charged, members of his family were sent to prison.
Rather than just cover each sentencing, we decided to delve deeper into the fascinating history of art fraud in Chicago.
That involved pulling hundreds of pages of dry court documents and interviewing key players in the case to draw out the details.
We also took a step back and called on Ellis and his colleague, James Tendick, the now-retired postal inspectors who had helped convict Zabrin and Amiel’s family in the 1990s.
Their voice (and they use cinematic phrases like “the heat was on”) added richness, depth and perspective to the tale of the fraudsters who apparently didn’t learn their lesson from the first go-round.
“All of these guys, the reason they keep coming back is it’s such great money and it’s so easy to do,” Ellis said.
-- Becky SchlikermanCopyright © 2015, CT Now