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February 22 2020
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A Boston Brahmin by way of Dover Street: Inigo Philbrick, at a party at Le Bernardin in 2016.

Inigo Philbrick. Even the name is extravagant. A touch of Dickensian grandeur; a little pan-European romance. It would look good engraved in marble. If you attached it to the protagonist in a satire of the contemporary-art scene, your editor would tell you to dial it down a bit. Too on the nose, they’d tell you. Too writerly. Too ornate.

But it’s all true, even when it’s built on a pack of lies. Inigo Philbrick: the globe-trotting, high-flying, billionaire-baiting, magnum-spilling, quick-thinking, Zegna-wearing, fugazi-shilling, Ponzi-scheming prodigy. The brazen wunderkind dealer who fleeced the art establishment to the tune of some $70 million. The great disappearing Inigo, whose current whereabouts are rumored to be a remote Pacific island. Or maybe Thailand. Or the Bahamas. Or South America. Or South Africa, actually. Or Cuba. Or Australia. Or Miami. They seek him here, they seek him there—that damned elusive Inigo!

Résumé-Building

His prodigy pedigree was nearly flawless. There was the patrician East Coast family that could trace its roots back to New England’s founding fathers; the education at Goldsmiths, University of London (alma mater of the Young British Artists and the petri dish of Cool Britannia); the internship at White Cube, and the tutelage under its owner, super-gallerist Jay Jopling. Even the voice was impressive: a baritone, mid-Atlantic drawl with an old-money gravitas. The Boston Brahmin by way of Dover Street. Like a young George Plimpton with an auction paddle. When I asked people who met him for their impressions of the man, the adjective that kept popping up was “smooth.” One friend simply wrote, “Good perfumes.”

Inigo Philbrick was born in Redding, Connecticut, in 1987. His father, Harry Philbrick, ran the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum, in Ridgefield, Connecticut, and was later the head of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts Museum and founded Philadelphia Contemporary. According to Kenny Schachter—an art journalist and former friend of the dealer who was stung in one of Philbrick’s alleged frauds—the senior Philbrick’s résumé lent Inigo “a foundation of knowledge but not a load of dough, so he’s informed and hungry.” Well bred, but not sheltered. Sophisticated, but never spoiled. “The young dealer … has kept a low profile as a secondary trader well known among the cognoscenti for being shrewd and having a mind of his own,” Schachter wrote on Artnet News in December 2018. This was, he concluded, “a rarity in the market.”

At just 23, Philbrick was promoted to head of secondary market sales at White Cube, a new but prestigious position that belied his relative inexperience. “He struck me as a smart, ambitious young man with a good eye for art and an impressive commercial sense,” Jopling wrote in response to my request for comment.

Rhein II, by Andreas Gursky, as seen at the Hayward Gallery, in London. In 2011, Philbrick bought it at Christie’s for $4.33 million, the most ever paid for a photograph at auction.

Soon, Philbrick had secured financial backing from Jopling to set up Modern Collections, a gallery on Mayfair’s Mount Street that dealt in contemporary artists. When it opened, in 2011, the space became the cause of some disquiet. Industry grandees felt that this new wave of secondary dealers was driving up prices unsustainably, with little regard for the long-term careers of the artists they represented. A piece titled “Too Much Too Young,” in an October edition of The Art Newspaper that year, argued that Philbrick’s sales were symptomatic of a dangerous trend. Filiep Libeert, a notable Belgian collector, was quoted as saying: “Everyone is talking about how this has happened and how it can continue.” Libeert told the newspaper that works that were selling for $20,000 six or seven years ago were now priced at over $800,000 on the secondary market. Dealer Sadie Coles simply described the venture as “confusing.”

Nevertheless, the operation was an apparent success, and the confident young gallerist soon graduated to the auction houses. At one evening sale at Christie’s in New York in November 2011, Philbrick out-muscled the competition to take home a flotilla of pricey works, including a piece by Andreas Gursky for $4.33 million, a record for the artist and a record for a photograph bought at auction. Philbrick was still just 24, but he was mixing with the big boys.

The Makings of a Ponzi Scheme

The success continued apace. Philbrick’s strategy of betting hard on a select crop of rising artists was paying off. “He ran in the right circles, had access to artworks and people with money, and was producing good returns—which is obviously attractive to investors and collectors alike,” said Judd Grossman, a lawyer representing several of the claimants against Philbrick. “Everyone sort of knew he was big into flipping things and pushing prices up,” said one London gallerist.

The young dealer was making good money, fast, and he was always quick to pay his partners. By 2017, Philbrick’s Companies House filings boasted a turnover of $125 million, up from $66 million a year before. He was often seen at C London, a restaurant on Davies Street, footing the bill for expensive claret and long lunches, or “hobnobbing with the rich and the famous,” as Grossman puts it. He cut around in private jets and bought his suits from Zegna in Milan. One Mayfair restaurateur remembers being surprised, after a particularly lavish meal last year, that such a young man had such a deep wallet. As one collector puts it: “Surprising is one word. Downright fishy might be another.”

The wheels soon began to wobble. The bets that had made Philbrick such a hot hand now came back to burn him. The dealer appears to have been highly leveraged against a small selection of rising artists, chiefly Wade Guyton and Rudolf Stingel, whom Philbrick had backed so heavily that he became known as the King of Stingel. Stingel’s work was rising precipitously in value throughout 2016 and 2017. But in 2018, investor interest plateaued, stalled, and then dipped. As ARTnews put it in December last year: “A torpid Stingel market was a threat to Philbrick’s business strategy, as it began to shut off the supply of new money.”

One Mayfair restaurateur remembers being surprised, after a particularly hearty meal last year, that such a young man had such a deep wallet.

“It all crashed when he could not sustain the cash flow and returns on investment,” said a London gallerist. “So he sold paintings that he didn’t own, faked valuations, and screwed his investors over.” Grossman calls it “intentional and creative deception, forging documents and telling outright lies with regard to authenticity and provenance.”

Some of Philbrick’s alleged schemes were straightforwardly deceitful—closer to brazen theft than Machiavellian con artistry. “One of my clients, having met Inigo a couple of times, was not looking to sell anything from his private collection,” Grossman explains. “But Inigo persisted and convinced him to consign the artwork—and we haven’t seen the artwork and we haven’t seen the money.”

Untitled, by Rudolf Stingel. Philbrick dealt in the artist heavily, but when the market for Stingel’s work slowed, the dealer found himself dealing with a shortage of cash.

Other elements of the scheme, however, were more complex. “He’d sell multiple interests in a single artwork, for example. If you sell more than 100 percent of an artwork to multiple people—you give three buyers 50 percent, say—it’s pretty obvious to see the deception.” This is the ploy that stung, for example, the Reuben brothers, London’s billionaire property tycoons, among others. According to ARTnews, their company, Guzzini Properties, claims to have bought Rudolf Stingel’s 2012 portrait of Pablo Picasso (along with two other works) in 2017 for $6 million from Philbrick. It then claims to have sold the Stingel through Christie’s in May 2019 for $6.5 million. But Christie’s still holds the work, because two other companies also claim to own it—art collector Aleksandar Pesko’s Satfinance Investment Ltd. (which paid Philbrick $3.35 million for half of the work in January 2016), and a Berlin-based firm called Fine Art Partners, which says it bought the whole thing for $7.1 million in early 2015.

(This con seems to have been repeated, in various iterations, along a daisy chain of institutional art buyers. Fine Art Partners, for example, is suing Philbrick in Miami over claims that he sold them works totaling $14 million that he had already flogged to the Saudi collection of the Royal Commission for Al-Ula.)

Then there was the Ponzi-flavored ruse. In order to keep up with his historically strong returns, Philbrick had to get creative with his liquidity. “In a classic Ponzi scheme there’s no asset backing the investment,” explains Grossman. “You are using the left hand to pay the right hand. In this case there were actual, tangible physical artworks being bought and sold. But it was being dealt in a way that didn’t add up, and money from the sale of one artwork was going on to pay off the other clients who were owed money.”

Philbrick is accused of misappropriating funds, borrowing from lenders, and pledging others’ artworks as security; it is estimated that between 10 and 20 people were affected and defrauded of a sum that could total up to $75 million.

The pool of victims might be small, but it’s elite. On December 10, last year, Kenny Schachter wrote how he’d “been Inigo’d to the tune of well over $1,000,000.” And, Schachter claims, he wasn’t the only one sucked into Philbrick’s vortex. “He also did loads of business with Hauser & Wirth, Lévy Gorvy, Gagosian, and Zwirner—whether they knew it or not (he often employed proxies to do his bidding)—and Jay Jopling, his former mentor.” The smartest men in the room, duped by the young pretender. How could this happen?

A Sorry State of Affairs

Philbrick’s con exposes the natural frailties of the art market—an industry built on perceived status and handshake deals and gut feelings and nebulous trust. This is nothing new. Philbrick joins a long list of confidence tricksters who have thrived in the foggy gray areas of the art world—a business that has a lot of foggy gray areas. But the sheer gall of his alleged deceptions seems to have taken many by surprise.

“What he has done has tainted the art market massively, in my opinion,” said one London dealer. Jay Jopling wrote, “It has hurt and saddened me to learn that Mr. Philbrick, whom I respected and whose early career I supported, has not only betrayed my trust but, it appears, that of many others.”

“When a fraud is as brazen as this one, even good due diligence can’t detect it,” said Grossman. “Buyers were doing due diligence and asking the right questions. They were seeing what they needed to see and they believed it to be true. Unfortunately, it wasn’t.”

“We are privileged in our industry to work closely with the artists and art that we love,” concluded Jopling. “I am enormously disappointed that Mr. Philbrick appears to have abused this position of privilege.”

As the wheels were falling off, in October 2019, Philbrick wrote to a reporter at ARTnews in an attempt to lay down some context. “The story is going to be a cautionary one with regards to the professionalization, securitization and legalization of the art world,” he said. “We are in a period of massive transition where art dealers, collectors, and investors are attempting to turn the arena into one which mimics the worlds of finance and real estate. Alongside this change will naturally come impropriety and the need for increased due caution.” This may well be accurate, but it is some first-class hook-wriggling. And it must rile any victim to hear such deliberate deception underplayed as “natural impropriety.”

“When a fraud is as brazen as this one, even good due diligence can’t detect it.”

That was one of the last statements made by Philbrick. As of December, he has gone essentially missing; his Mayfair gallery is shuttered, along with its Miami outpost; the e-mail addresses and phone lines are dead. Kenny Schachter, who declined to comment for this piece, partly because he is attempting to develop the saga into a screenplay, is in hot (if largely virtual) pursuit. In December he put out a faux wanted poster on Instagram, requesting any information that could lead to Philbrick’s arrest. Schachter quickly heard from a now deleted account called @steve_irwin_pets. The message sought to defend the dealer: “Hopefully everybody will see the fact he was a young man in an immense position of responsibility out of nowhere who wanted to make everybody happy and over promised and under delivered [sic] in the end but to no personal benefit,” it read.

After a few hours of online chatting, however, the account’s third-person speech slipped into a first-person rebuttal. “It’s no big deal, I did nothing wrong and It will all be forgotten soon,” the Instagrammer said. “Much better idea is to mediate and find a way forward. Nobody was stiffed, it was just a few bad deals. Things will be made good.”

This may be wishful thinking. But to Grossman the end goal is indeed financial rather than criminal. “My goal is to make our clients whole, which means either recovering artworks or the money,” he said. “I care more about making the clients whole than bringing him to justice.”

It’s unclear to what extent either goal will be achieved. A column written by Schachter about Philbrick in December 2018 seems eerily prescient now—a cosmic, artistic irony. “In the end, I wouldn’t say he’s ruthless, and I certainly do adore him,” he wrote. “But you know art dealers—he’s as cold blooded as the best that ever was.”

Joseph Bullmore is a writer based in London

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