Inigo Philbrick, the art dealer who allegedly fleeced collectors, investors and lenders out of more than $20m, then fled to a tropical island, pleaded guilty to federal wire fraud charges in a New York criminal court today. When asked by Judge Stein of New York’s Southern District Court why he committed the crime, Philbrick said “for the money, your honour”. He faces a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison, though his attorneys brokered a deal with the prosecution that would likely keep his sentence down to between ten and 12 years. Philbrick was also ordered to forfeit more than $86m, make restitution to those he defrauded and give up interest in two works, one by Christopher Wool and another by Wade Guyton.
Philbrick, who opened his own gallery in 2013 after serving as head of secondary market sales at White Cube, was known among art collectors and speculators as having a keen eye for contemporary art and openly bid on blue-chip contemporary art auctions. In 2011 at 24-years-old, he nonchalantly paid over $4m for an Andreas Gursky photograph at a Christie’s evening sale in New York and just a few years later, in 2017, his gallery reported a $130m turnover.
However, in 2019 Philbrick’s reputation began to sour, and his business suffered when the market for some of his favourite artists (such as Wool and Rudolf Stingel) began to cool as they fell out of fashion. To keep up appearances and maintain his apparently lavish lifestyle, which reportedly included chartering private jets and hundred-thousand dollar wristwatches, the art dealer misrepresented the ownership of certain works for his benefit, sold shares of works to multiple investors for totals that exceeded 100%, used some of those works to secure loans for himself and forged consignment documents.
In late 2019, after collectors and speculators started to suspect Philbrick of doing dirty business, civil lawsuits for fraud began to pile up. In October of that year, he defaulted on a $14m loan and just before the multiple lawsuits against him became public, he fled the US for the Pacific island of Vanuatu. He was arrested in June 2020 after Vanuatu authorities expelled him at the request of the US embassy in Papua New Guinea. He was indicted by a New York grand jury one month later.
“It’s a sad day for Inigo, but he’s happy to put this behind him,” Philbrick’s attorney Jeffery Lichtman said after the hearing. “The industry is corrupt from top to bottom. Inigo isn’t the cause here, he’s a symptom. I suspect many more cases like this would appear if the art world were investigated thoroughly.”
Philbrick will return to court for sentencing on 18 March 2022.