Having nerves of steel is an essential attribute for any confidence trickster, and Inigo Philbrick, 33, described as the art world’s Bernie Madoff for an alleged $20m fraud, certainly had those.
Philbrick, who was arrested last week while strolling through the locked-down streets of the South Pacific island of Vanuatu, wearing just swimming trunks and a t-shirt, had made no attempt to hide his identity and had been using his own name to book tennis lessons and in dealings with local businesses on the island, the industry website Artnet reports.
After being picked up, Philbrick was frogmarched to a Gulfstream jet bound for the American territory of Guam on June 11 and a photograph of Philbrick in zip ties being walked to the plane made the front page of the sleepy island’s local paper in the following days.
Bemused locals were left to digest the fact that the pleasant newcomer to their island paradise, who had been helping out at the local animal shelter, was in fact a fugitive art dealer who stands accused of, among other things, selling millions of dollars worth of overlapping shares in valuable pieces of art, in one of the greatest art scams this century.
One local told Artnet: “He didn’t hide who he was and underestimated the power of word of mouth. News of his identity spread rather quickly. It was only a matter of time before the authorities took notice.”
Bizarrely, Philbrick became involved in an animal rescue program on the island and adopted a dog. “He was always calling me about an animal he found,” one local told Artnet, calling him a “very kind person."
The art world has been abuzz with news of the arrest following a statement from the FBI that it has charged Philbrick, a U.S. citizen who once had galleries in London and Miami, with defrauding investors and lenders out of more than $20m. He also faces one count of wire fraud, which carries a maximum prison term of 20 years, and one count of aggravated identity theft, which has a mandatory two-year prison sentence.
Philbrick’s alleged fraudulent scheme took in works by Jean-Michel Basquiat, Christopher Wool and, notably, Rudolf Stingel, who is known for his series of paintings of wallpaper, as detailed in a complaint that was unsealed last week.
The United States Department of Justice stated that Philbrick “obtained millions of dollars in loans and sale proceeds in connection with the Fraud Scheme. Artworks about which Philbrick made these fraudulent misrepresentations in furtherance of the Fraud Scheme include, among others, a 1982 painting by the artist Jean-Michel Basquiat titled ‘Humidity,’ a 2010 untitled painting by the artist Christopher Wool, and an untitled 2012 painting by the artist Rudolf Stingel, depicting the artist Pablo Picasso.”
U.S. Attorney Geoffrey S Berman said: “As alleged, Inigo Philbrick was a serial swindler who misled art collectors, investors, and lenders out of more than $20 million. You can’t sell more than 100 percent ownership in a single piece of art, which Philbrick allegedly did, among other scams. When his schemes began to unravel, Philbrick allegedly fled the country. Now he is in U.S. custody and facing justice.”
Philbrick, who dated a British reality TV contestant, flew around the world on private jets and, according to one former friend, “had a hefty appetite for drugs and enjoyed the company of prostitutes.” He vanished eight months ago after a portrait of Picasso by Stingel, which he had assured his investors would fetch $9m at auction, wound up making just $5.5 million (maybe he should have stuck to the wallpaper), and it was discovered that Philbrick had double-sold the work.
It then emerged, in a cascade of lawsuits, that he had done the same thing many other times.
Philbrick had been able to pull off his alleged scam by exploiting the unregulated nature of the market, which has no central registry of ownership, and that fact that much valuable art is never even hung on a wall by the owner these days.
Philbrick, who had been dealing art since his early twenties, encouraged investors to buy shares of works, keeping them in secure storage vaults and flipping them a few months later.
This was initially, it is believed, entirely legitimate, but it appears that somewhere along the line Philbrick got into trouble and began selling rather more than 100% of the works he acquired.
When the wheels came off late last year he disappeared, popping up in Vanuatu in March. Several islanders told Artnet News that Philbrick used his real name with local businesses, apparently under the impression there was no extradition agreement between the U.S. and Vanuatu.
“Our clients and we are incredibly grateful for the government’s tremendous efforts in tracking down Philbrick and beginning the process of bringing him to justice,” attorney Judd Grossman, who is representing plaintiffs including collectors Sasha Pesko and Andre Sakhai for claims against Philbrick that are worth millions, told Artnet.
Another collector who was scammed by Philbrick, Kenny Schachter, wrote: “I would be shocked if I managed to see a dime back, and bet some works he squirreled away will be buried in perpetuity—or until he eventually gets out of jail.”
Philbrick’s defense attorney in Guam reportedly offered to buy him pants and a shirt, so he could change out of the swimsuit in which he had arrived.
Let’s just hope the lawyer doesn’t want to be paid back.