Inigo Philbrick, a well-connected young art dealer who disappeared last year under allegations of, among other things, reselling the same piece of art to multiple buyers, was arrested by the Federal Bureau of Investigation on Thursday on an island in Vanuatu, an island nation in the South Pacific. Philbrick is expected to appear before a New York federal court on Monday, June 15th, 2020.
A serial swindler who misled art collectors, investors, and lenders out of more than $20 million, Philbrick started as a successful art gallery owner in London who bought and sold works worth millions by world-famous artists. However, it turned out that the deals were fake, as he sold the same artworks to different investors, sometimes at inflated prices. Soon the man and the money disappeared, leaving a trail of mystery and scandal in his wake.
At the age of 24, Inigo Philbrick opened a gallery and consultancy in London’s posh Mayfair district, and later in New York, with the financial assistance of one of the industry's better known dealers. The gallery dealt artwork by blue-chip artists such as Wade Guyton, Christopher Wool, Mark Bradford and Rudolf Stingel. Philbrick operated as a reseller with a business model that sold works not only to individuals but also groups of collectors. Clients would buy ownership stakes in major artworks, betting that its value then go up, and then flip it.
Philbrick took advantage of the lack of transparency of the art market, where investors have difficulty verifying how much their dealers paid for artworks and whether the percentage of shares they bought is, in fact, the percentage of shares they hold.
In 2016, Philbrick bought a photorealistic painting of Pablo Picasso by Rudolf Stingel for $6.7 million from the Neal Meltzer gallery in January 2016, unsuccessfully attempting to find a buyer in a private sale for the next two years. When the piece sold in at Christie's in 2019 for $5.5 million, it turned out that Philbrick had double-sold the work, as three parties were expecting payment for it. Further ownership disputes included Flaming U by Wade Guyton and Infinity Net by Yayoi Kusama, suggesting a Ponzi-like scheme where Philbrick would sell one artwork more than once in order to get the funds to pay for another.
In October 2019, Fine Art Partners, a Germany-based financial services company specialized in the art market, filed suit against Inigo Philbrick in a Florida court alleging that the dealer was withholding works of art by Donald Judd, Yayoi Kusama, Christopher Wool, and Wade Guyton - in total worth more than $14 million. In the center of the lawsuit was Kusama's installation, that Philbrick bought on the group’s behalf in September 2017 for $3.3 million with the understanding that he would resell it for a profit.
However, the group seemingly had no idea that Philbrick had already sold the installation out from under them in April of 2019 to an entity MVCA in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, who then loaned the work to the Institute of Contemporary Art, Miami for a show. FAP also alleged that it financed Philbrick’s purchase of Stingel's painting, for which he showed them a falsified guarantee from Christie's that the work would go for $9 million. When it fetched only $5.5 million, he assured them that the auction house would kick in the remaining $3.5 million.
The story became even more complicated when Guzzini Properties, Ltd., a company that collects art, claimed that Stingel was sold to them in June 2017 and that they were the consignors to Christie's, not Philbruck as claimed by FAP in its suit. As it turned out, the Stingel painting was one of three works that the company agreed to buy from Philbrick in 2017 for $6 million, alongside works by Guyton and Christopher Wool.
The Singapore-based LLG PTE Ltd. claimed that the dealer sold them a work by Donald Judd in 2015, which they never received. They filed a lawsuit accusing him of having possibly given the work to a third party and having not responded to inquiries about where the work may now reside. Similarly, Satfinance Investment Ltd. had accused Philbrick of inflating the price of a Jean-Michel Basquiat painting Humidity, allegedly charging the company about $6 million over the agreed-upon price of $12.2 million.
Over the course of several weeks, more fraud victims came forward, claiming that Philbrick had sold artworks to more than one person or sold fractions of paintings that together amounted to more than 100 percent. He had allegedly taken out nearly $20 million in loans on paintings he didn’t actually own.
When this elaborated scheme began to unfold, a London judge placed a world wide freeze on Inigo Philbrick's assets from England and Wales in November 2019. However, it was already too late. Philbrick's galleries in London and Miami ware closed and he was gone. With multiple lawsuits against him currently pending, he could own as much as $70 million in assets, according to a court filing, not counting the $150 million Philbrick's businesses allegedly own.
“It was a con,” attorney Judd Grossman, of the New York firm Grossman LLP, who represents several individuals who claim to be aggrieved investors, said for ARTnews. “Whether I’d call it a Ponzi scheme, it’s sort of a variation of one, similar to the one perpetrated by Ezra Chowaiki, just on a much grander scale and probably a little more brazen. There were actual transactions taking place, and there were real assets being acquired and sold, but it was all being done against a web of lies.”
Philbrick has been arrested and charged with operating a $20 million fraud scheme, but the total amount is likely to be higher once the dust settles. He was charged with one count of wire fraud and one count of aggravated identity theft. The wire fraud charge carries a maximum prison term of 20 years, while the aggravated identity theft charge carries a mandatory sentence of two years in prison.
Featured image: Installation view of A Sunday Afternoon, the last exhibition of works by Bridget Riley and Jeff Elrod hosted by Inigo Philbrick Gallery in Miami, FL, 24th June — 31st August 2019.