Art world wunderkind arrested months after fleeing the U.S.

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Art world wunderkind arrested months after fleeing the U.S.
Rudolf Stingel (b. 1956), Untitled. Price realised: USD 6,517,500. Christie's Images Ltd 2020.

by Scott Reyburn

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Inigo Philbrick, the elusive contemporary art dealer who disappeared in the fall after being accused of defrauding clients of more than $20 million, was arrested Thursday by U.S. law enforcement agents on the Pacific island of Vanuatu. Philbrick has since been transported to Guam, where he is expected to be presented in federal court Monday, according to prosecutors.

“You can’t sell more than 100% ownership in a single piece of art, which Philbrick allegedly did, among other scams,” U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Berman said in a statement. “When his schemes began to unravel, Philbrick allegedly fled the country. Now he is in U.S. custody and facing justice.”

Philbrick, 33, is accused of wire fraud and aggravated identity theft. According to the complaint unsealed Friday in U.S. District Court in Manhattan, he engaged from about 2016 to 2019 in a plot “to defraud multiple individuals and entities in the art market located in the New York metropolitan area and abroad” in order to finance his art business.

Wire fraud carries a maximum prison term of 20 years. Identity theft carries a mandatory sentence of two years in prison.

The dealer, who operated galleries in London and Miami, has been the subject of an investigation by the FBI’s Joint Major Theft Task Force/Art Crime Team in New York. A U.S. citizen, he is believed to have been living as a fugitive on Vanuatu since October.

Philbrick is the son of Harry Philbrick, the former director of the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum in Ridgefield, Connecticut, and a graduate of the prestigious Goldsmiths college in London. In 2013, Inigo Philbrick opened a gallery in London bearing his name. The venture was backed by Jay Jopling, the founder of the powerhouse White Cube gallery, where Philbrick had been head of secondary market sales.

Philbrick established a reputation among international collectors and speculators for being an expert on the works of fashionable contemporary artists like Rudolf Stingel, Wade Guyton and Christopher Wool, whose prices rose dramatically during the early 2010s.

With his gallery reporting turnover of about $130 million in 2017, Philbrick opened a branch in Miami in 2018. He was a conspicuous bidder on big-ticket works at marquee contemporary auctions. And he lived the highest of high lives, sporting a 5990 Patek Philippe Nautilus watch and regularly chartering private jets.

But by the late 2010s, demand for Philbrick’s favored artists had begun to cool, leaving the dealer with the challenge of satisfying profit-hungry clients in a falling market. The elaborate schemes that Philbrick used to maintain his business and his lifestyle were revealed in several lawsuits filed in the United States and Britain in 2019.

On Oct. 4, Fine Art Partners, a financial services company based in Germany, filed a lawsuit in Miami-Dade Circuit Court seeking the return of pieces that Philbrick had agreed to sell on its behalf. These included a Yayoi Kusama “Infinity Mirror Room” publicly exhibited at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Miami. Central to Fine Art Partners’ complaint was the nonpayment of $9 million that it claimed Philbrick had said was the guaranteed price a Stingel painting of Picasso would fetch for them at a Christie’s auction in May 2019. It sold for $6.5 million.

Federal prosecutors accuse Philbrick of having sold multiple ownership interests in the Stingel before the auction, adding that he was the ultimate end-buyer when the painting sold at Christie’s, that he paid only $2 million of the purchase price and that he had forged consignment documents.

Philbrick’s Miami gallery was closed in November. That same month, a British judge froze the dealer’s assets.

“It’s sad,” said Kenny Schachter, a writer and dealer who worked closely with Philbrick from 2012 to 2015.

Schachter said he lost almost $2 million through his business dealings with the art-world wunderkind.

“He hurt so many people, and no matter how you feel about well-off art speculators, they are people, too,” Schachter said. “That such a bright and talented person would be blinded by greed and hubris and implode so spectacularly is a shame. I would still be shocked if I managed to see a dime back.”

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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