The $86M scam that landed art dealer Inigo Philbrick in prison

Inigo Philbrick may be a thief, but at least he’s honest.

The former London art dealer, who was sentenced Monday to seven years in prison after pleading guilty to a criminal charge of wire fraud, didn’t hold back last year when a Manhattan federal court asked judge why he had defrauded clients out of some $86 million .

“For the money, your honor.”

The 33 year-old will be locked up for scamming buyers and stealing multi-million-dollar artworks by the likes of Donald Judd, Christopher Wool and Jean-Michel Basquiat. He was caught in the South Pacific following a six-month-long FBI manhunt

Despite the honesty, “He exhibited a total lack of remorse,” attorney Judd Grossman, who is representing multiple clients in civil suits tied to Philbrick, told The Post.

For a while, the slippery dealer — born in Connecticut, schooled in London — legitimately sold art out of a gallery in that city’s tony Mayfair neighborhood as well as in Miami.

But his aspirations grew faster than his wallet could keep up with.

Philbrick lived an extravagant lifestyle with his fiancee Victoria Baker-Harber.

Philbrick wore $50,000 watches, $5,000 suits and custom-made shoes. If you dined with him at Cipriani in London, there was no need to wait for a check; the dashing art dealer maintained a house account.

His was also a high-flying world: According to New York magazine, Philbrick reportedly kept supplies of MDMA handy, rented a villa in Ibiza and became engaged to Victoria Baker-Harber, a blue-chip British socialite and reality TV star.

“He needed the cash to finance his business and in turn to finance his lifestyle. He was ascending in his career but not at the necessary speed in order to sustain his lifestyle, ”said Grossman, who practices in New York City and specializes in art-related cases.

That’s when Philbrick began defrauding clients with an array of scams. One of the slickest: Selling the same painting to multiple collectors — none of whom were aware of the others’ interests — before it was publicly auctioned.

According to court documents, the artwork "mirror room" by Japanese artist Yoyai Kusama was sold by Philbrick without informing — or paying — the owners.
According to court documents, the artwork “Mirror Room” by Japanese artist Yoyai Kusama was sold by Philbrick without informing — or paying — the owners.
REUTERS

In a letter to the court, alleged victim Daniel Tumpel — founder of Fine Art Partners, a company that works in art-world finance — recalled that Philbrick came to visit him in Berlin via private jet and tooled around the city in a limousine. Tumpel claims he later saw bank statements showing that money paid to Philbrick for the purchase of art was actually used to finance that splashy trip.

Take “Mirror Room,” a work by the Japanese artist Yoyai Kusama, which, Tumpel, as stated in a letter to the court, purchased in 2017 for $2,310,000, intending for Philbrick to then sell it at a profit.

In 2018, Tumpel saw his “Mirror Room” hanging in Philbrick’s gallery during the time of Art Basel Miami fair. Over the next 10 months, the dealer led Tumpel to believe that he was “negotiating a possible sale to a Miami museum,” Tumpel wrote in a letter to the court. But “around November 2019, we found out that Philbrick sold the work in 2018 [after Art Basel] without informing us.”

Tumpel and his company were not paid, according to the court letter.

Philbrick was a fixture at big auctions and came across as an art-world wunderkind.
Philbrick was a fixture at big auctions and came across as an art-world wunderkind.
Clint Spaulding / PMC

After they found out about the sneaky Kusama sale, Tumpel and his wife, Loretta Wurtenberger, began worrying about the whereabouts of another of their paintings, “Untitled 2010” by the post-conceptual artist Christopher Wool. They had paid $4,830,000 for the work, believing that Philbrick would sell it for them. When they asked him about it, Philbrick insisted the paining was with him — and provided the kind of proof famously used to verify the vitality of kidnap victims: He sent a photo of himself standing in front of the painting and holding a newspaper with that day’s date on it.

Tumpel was satisfied at the time. Later, he claimed in the letter, he found out the truth: “The painting was photoshopped into the picture … and was no longer in Philbrick’s possession [at the time]. He had collateralized it for a loan from Athena Finance, who had stored the painting in their warehouse.”

It is one of five pieces Philbrick allegedly used to snag some $15 million worth of loans. Tumpel wants his Wool back and describes his former dealer as “a stone cold criminal.”

But it was not always this way. Philbrick grew up in Connecticut, the privileged son of Harry, a museum director who founded the nonprofit arts organization Philadelphia Contemporary, and Jane, a self-described artist-entrepreneur. Philbrick, like his dad, attended the esteemed Goldsmith’s, University of London, which focuses on art education. Harry has released a statement claiming “no knowledge” of his son’s transgressions.

Philbrick landed an internship with London art dealer Jay Jopling (above), whose White Cube Gallery famously fostered the career of Damien Hirst.
Philbrick landed an internship with London art dealer Jay Jopling (above), whose White Cube Gallery famously fostered the career of Damien Hirst.
Getty Images

Upon graduation, Inigo landed an internship with London art dealer and Goldsmith’s alum Jay Jopling, whose White Cube Gallery famously fostered the career of Damien Hirst. Though Jopling has also now put space between himself and Philbrick, he once mentored the burgeoning dealer and offered financial support when Philbrick opened his Mayfair gallery in 2013. That gallery did well by focusing on the secondary art market — buying works by hot artists such as Wade Guyton, Christopher Wool and Rudolph Stengel from collectors and selling them at profit.

Philbrick was a fixture at big auctions and came across as an art-world wunderkind. “He was an expert. He was not just some charlatan who knew nothing about art,” Manhattan-based art dealer Helly Nahmad told The Post. “He had everything he needed to do well.”

But, Philbrick’s victims allege, he lacked integrity. He got involved in buying and promoting valuable art as fractional investments: people own percentages of the work (and receive potential profits generated upon its sale) based on how much they invest. But as deals went south, Philbrick’s finances became stretched and he began misrepresenting facts to investors. Sometimes he would sell more than 100% of a work and other times he inflated the prices.

Jean-Michel Basquiat's painting “Humidity” was allegedly involved in a fraud by Philbrick.
Jean-Michel Basquiat’s painting “Humidity” was allegedly involved in a fraud by Philbrick.

Such was the case with a Basquiat painting called “Humidity.” According to Grossman, prosecutors alleged that Philbrick approached the collector Aleksander “Sasha” Pesko, now being represented by Grossman, to help buy the work for $18.4 million. The idea, Grossman said, “was that they would contribute to the purchase price and share any profit. Our client thought he put up half. Then Inigo said he was short $3 million. our client [ultimately] put up $12 million and got defrauded [when Inigo] transferred it to an offshore entity and used it to borrow money. He lied. We’re making the case that our client owns the painting because he put up almost all of [the purchase price]. Our argument is that you can’t pledge something you don’t own.”

Things finally unraveled for Philbrick when a painting by Rudolf Stingel, “Untitled,” sold at Christie’s for $5.5 million. It is alleged, by multiple entities claiming to own the painting, that Philbrick had received some $10 million for the painting, secretly selling percentages of it to multiple investors — one of whom put it up for sale at Christie’s, believing himself to be the sole owner. But that soon others stepped forward, seeking their cuts from the auction. Civil lawsuits and criminal charges followed.

Pressure built on Philbrick and, according to an inside source, in the fall of 2019, he admitted his misdeeds to two investors. “He knew he was going to be caught,” said the source. “He confessed to them in great detail.”

Philbrick was confronted by officials and deported to Guam where FBI agents took possession of him.
Philbrick was confronted by officials in the South Pacific and deported to Guam where FBI agents took him into custody.
Vanuatu Immigration Services

But by November of 2019, when a London judge froze Philbrick’s assets, he was gone. According to the Department of Justice, “Flight records show that Philbrick departed the United States shortly before public reporting began about the arguments.”

Feds tracked him to the South Pacific island nation of Vanuatu, about 500 miles west of Fiji, where he was living with a pregnant Baker-Harber. In June 2021, according to ArtNet, as Philbrick and a friend strolled an outdoor market, local and global law enforcers surrounded the pair. They demanded to know if he was Inigo. He said he was and officers zip-tied his wrists, put him into a car and whisked him to an airstrip. Philbrick’s last private jet flight awaited him: A Gulfstream that would transport the fugitive to Guam where FBI agents took the disgraced dealer into custody.

Los Angeles art collector/dealer Stefan Simchowitz, who “did a small deal with [Philbrick] – for a $20,000 painting,” told The Post that the dealer was “a young guy who got in over his head … and was too cool for school. He is not an arch criminal but he is af–king idiot.”

His fiancée wrote to the court: “He always believed there was a solution instead of confronting the problem.”

Meanwhile, Philbrick’s attorney, Jeffrey Lichtman, insists the shiny veneer belies a more complex reality. “People look at Inigo and see what they consider to be a wealthy, blue-blooded art dealer,” Lichtman told The Post. “They do n’t get the guy at all… His daughter was born while he was incarcerated. He still has not met her. He is suffering in the way that average defendants do not suffer.”

Days before the sentencing, Grossman considered how Philbrick got away with his high-flying schemes: “He was very personable, very smart, very good at identifying opportunities for investment. But he developed relationships of trust and confidence and abused them.”

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