Before Inigo Philbrick became known as the art world’s “mini-Madoff,” he cultivated a reputation as a wunderkind gallerist. A bon vivant with boyish good looks and even better connections, Philbrick opened two of his own art galleries by his early 30s. Philbrick had enjoyed the backing of a top gallerist and the trust of seasoned collectors. He boasted a comely girlfriend and had ingratiated himself with her family.
Philbrick, as it would turn out, was a scammer. He pleaded guilty on Nov. 18, 2021 to one count of wire fraud. At the time, the then 34-year-old Philbrick admitted in court that between 2016 and 2019, he “knowingly engaged” in a scheme to rake in cash using “material representations and omissions” in his business deals, including shady tactics like peddling more shares in an artwork than actually existed. He will be sentenced Monday afternoon for the $86 million fraud. Papers submitted in advance of his sentencing paint a comprehensive, and complicated, picture of Philbrick’s life leading to his massive crime. Testimonials from his supporters attempt to recast Philbrick as an altruistic savior, though they ultimately shed light on the privileges Philbrick enjoyed during his upbringing, thus possibly undermining the requests for leniency.
Philbrick’s story, which reads like a bildungsroman gone terribly wrong, renewed attention on a murky practice in the art world. His business model, which is increasingly common in the art market, was based on selling works not only to individual investors, but also to consortiums of multiple buyers. The group-based buying approach was rooted in the belief that they could buy a work at once price, and then resell it at a higher price when its value went up.
This setup is prime territory for swindlers, given the multi-billion international art marketplace’s notorious lack of transparency. There’s no central ownership database or extensive regulation. And investors don’t have a hard-and-fast method of knowing how much their brokers actually paid for artworks, enabling dealers to potentially cheat them and “skim off the top,” as The New York Times explained. Investors have no concrete way of knowing how much of an artwork they actually own.
Philbrick was born in the U.K., to a writer mother and an art-educator father. His parents moved to the U.S. when he was three or four years old. Living in the West Village, Philbrick had a “bohemian” upbringing, according to court papers submitted in his defense. Philbrick was 10 when his dad landed a position at the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum in Ridgefield, Connecticut. They left Manhattan and his father ultimately rose to the role of museum director. “Inigo is authentically art world born and bred. He was a constant studio companion, attending every exhibition and opening with his parents from literally one week old,” his mother, Jane, wrote in a letter of support.
Seven years later, Philbrick learned that his father was having an affair with his secretary, according to defense attorney Jeffrey Lichtman, spurring his parents’ divorce and the sale of their family home. His mother urged Philbrick to cut ties with his father, and he “began to feel pressured to provide financially for both his mother and sister,” Lichtman said. (Philbrick’s father denies leaving his family high-and-dry, and has accused his former wife of alienating them from him.)
Despite this, Philbrick managed to study art at the renowned Goldsmiths College in London. He got his bachelors and masters in curatorial studies while working at the tony White Cube gallery under Jay Jopling, a top international art dealer. “Inigo’s career aspiration was to be a premier art dealer in the mold of Pierre Matisse, son of Impressionist Henri Matisse, and Julien Levy, early twentieth-century champion of Surrealism and groundbreaking American artists and photographers,” Jane Philbrick wrote. “It was such a canny move, carving out a distinctive role for himself in our one-industry family in which he could stand his own ground on shared arts turf.”
Philbrick opened his own gallery in London’s posh Mayfair district in 2013, with financial backing from Jopling. He launched another outpost of his gallery in Miami five years later, The Times reported.
According to Lichtman’s sentencing papers experimented with pot and pills in high school, spiraled into a life of hard partying as he tried to keep up with personal and professional demands. Philbrick told authorities that this was “how art deals are done” — and that he needed this to “manage stress.” Eleanor Baker-Harber, the sister of Philbrick’s former fiance, British reality star Victoria Baker-Harber, wrote in a support letter, compared Philbrick’s professional pressures to those of “Wall Street bankers,” with “absurd” hours and high financial stakes.
“With all the hard work and long hours that Inigo put in, I was surprised that he had nothing to show for it,” Anna Baker-Harber, Victoria’s mother, similarly wrote. Anna Baker-Harber said that many were “dependent” on Philbrick, and that she wasn’t surprised to see him drink alot.
Amid these many pressures, Philbrick “needed money” to jump start his business, spurring the scam, he admitted. One of the blue-chip artworks Philbrick illicitly peddled was Jean-Michel Basquiat’s “Humidity.” Philbrick convinced an art investor and a gallerist, to buy this Basquiat, using bogus contracts to misrepresent who owned it. Philbrick then told an art finance firm that he had “clear title” to the Basquiat, as collateral for a loan. The investor, gallerist, and financing firm are now entangled in a legal battle over the ownership of “Humidity.”
Philbrick, prosecutors said, was “responsible for one of the most significant frauds in the art market in history,” capitalizing on “his reputation as a talented young art dealer to convince investors and lenders into trusting him with their art and money.” His business was based on lies, which spiraled into a “Ponzi-like scheme.” He used his victims’ money to buy art, to draw in still more investors, pay back other clients — all the while funding his lavish lifestyle. Sometimes, he fabricated paperwork so that victims would give him money, prosecutors said.
Around 2019, Philbrick’s then-clients started to notice that things didn’t seem right. Some of Philbrick’s sales weren’t as successful as planned, leaving him unable to pay his investors. Suspicions grew as Philbrick put off payments and gave “increasingly eccentric explanations for the delayed payments,” federal prosecutors said. A British court froze his assets. His former associates in Miami, New York, and London filed lawsuits against him, and he dipped out on court proceedings. By the end of 2019, his Miami gallery was closed. Philbrick’s Miami lawyers stopped representing him, according to Bloomberg. In October of 2019, Philbrick fled to Vanuatu — a South Pacific island nation that doesn’t have an extradition treaty with the U.S.
“He betrayed everyone he had ever worked with. Inigo Philbrick is a stone-cold criminal, who was driven by greed and the wish to finance his lavish lifestyle,” Daniel Tümpel, who owns financing firm Fine Art Partners with his wife Dr. Loretta Würtenberger, said in a victim-impact statement. Tümpel estimates their losses exceed $22 million. “This is not a Robin Hood story, this is real money he stole. Money my wife and I had worked hard for during our work life and which Philbrick embezzled to finance the luxurious lifestyle, the private planes, the gambling and the heavy spending on wine, drugs and restaurants.”
On Vanuatu, which boasts verdant volcanic landscapes and turquoise waters, Philbrick lived a life many an international fugitive would envy. Philbrick enjoyed regular tennis lessons and resided on the beach, according to The Daily Beast. But supporters are also claiming he was suddenly an upstanding citizen, moving to a small village with Victoria to care for a bereaved mutual friend’s house. “During their time in Mele village Inigo became very good friends with the native villagers,” his former neighbor on Vanuatu, Karen Adams, wrote in a support letter. “It may be hard to understand but the local population are very mistrusting of visitors and rarely allow us into their customs and village, so Inigo was extremely touched at their kindness and acceptance.”
His ex-fiance also painted a rosy picture of the convicted criminal, saying he generated “plans and ideas for projects in Vanuatu that gave back significantly to the local people” such as phytomining — “producing metal by growing plants”— on the mineral-rich archipelago… [He showed] kindness to outsiders, whether it be picking up locals from the village in Vanuatu to get them to a funeral, taking in stray dogs and newly born pups after a typhoon, and even wanting to get to a neighboring island to help rebuild a village after total destruction from the typhoon.”
One June 11, 2020, Philbrick’s do-gooder island life came to an abrupt end. As Philbrick strolled through a market, several vehicles swarmed him. Local police and U.S. Marshals rushed out and asked whether he was Philbrick. When he answered in the affirmative, they whisked him to an airport, according to Artnet. Vanuatu officials “expelled” him “at the request of the U.S. Embassy in Papua New Guinea in light of the charges in the [criminal] complaint,” the Manhattan U.S. Attorney’s Office said. He was arrested for his dirty dealings. He was taken to Guam, and presented in federal court. A judge greenlighted his transfer to New York City. He has been jailed since his arrest.