By Nikki Vafai
At only 33, Inigo Philbrick managed to quickly rise in the art world and become an extremely prominent blue-chip art dealer, specializing in postwar and contemporary art. He not only owned two art galleries in Miami and London, he also dealt with some of the most sophisticated collectors in the world. However, unbeknownst to those dealing with him, the young dealer had sprinted to his position in the art world by masterminding a scheme that defrauded countless collectors, investors, and lenders. Just as quickly as he rose to prominence, his scheme unraveled. By 34, he was already sentenced to seven years in prison.
Philbrick’s scheme thrived with the help of others, such as his business partner Robert Newland, who pleaded guilty to a count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud. The case heard in the Southern District of New York left many wondering how a young dealer could deceive individuals who were experts in their own right and how lasting the damage of the Philbrick machinations would be.
In 2013, Philbrick decided to launch his independent career in the art world. Philbrick built his business by operating in the secondary market, collateralizing and reselling fractional shares in contemporary art. From about 2016 to 2019, according to the Department of Justice, Philbrick is alleged to have made material misrepresentations and omissions to art collectors, investors, and lenders. His actions include selling more than one-hundred percent ownership in an artwork to multiple parties without their knowledge and selling or using artworks as collateral on loans without the knowledge of the co-owners or disclosing the ownership interests to the buyers and lenders. Philbrick also presented fraudulent contracts and records to investors in order to inflate the artwork’s value and fraudulently used the identification of others.
Over the years, to which he pleaded guilty, Philbrick obtained over $86 million in loans and sale proceeds. However, in 2019, investors and lenders began to learn of the fraudulent records they had been provided by Philbrick and the material misrepresentations and omissions he had made. In October 2019, one lender notified Phibrick that he was in default, and shortly after, various investors began to file civil lawsuits in various jurisdictions.
Philbrick’s galleries in Miami and London closed and Philbrick fled the country to Vanuatu, but in 2020 he was arrested by U.S. Marshals. Philbrick was charged with one count of wire fraud and one count of aggravated identity theft.
With regards to the first count charged, wire fraud, the U.S. prosecution argued that Philbrick, with others, devised and intended to devise a scheme defrauding collectors, investors, and financial lenders by providing false information and false documents regarding the sale, ownership, and provenance of artworks. The U.S. government claimed Philbrick obtained funds through wire transfer.
As for the second count, aggravated identity theft, the prosecution argued that Philbrick knowingly and unlawfully used the identification of someone else. They revealed that Philbrick used the name and signature of an officer of a Pennsylvania-based company to create a false art sale contract.
In its complaint, the U.S. prosecution described Philbrick’s various unlawful activities such as his misrepresentations of Jean-Michel Basquiat’s “Humidity” and Christopher Wool’s “Untitled.” The U.S. prosecution also highlighted Philbrick’s fraudulent activity with regards to Rudolf Stingel’s “Picasso,” selling a total of more than one-hundred percent ownership in the painting to three investors.
Philbrick originally entered a plea of not guilty but eventually entered a plea of guilty to Count 1, wire fraud. Many court documents in the case have been sealed, so the defense’s exact arguments are unknown.
On May 23, 2021, Philbrick pleaded guilty to count one, wire fraud, in the indictment. He was sentenced to seven years in prison. The court recommended to the Federal Bureau of Prisons that Philbrick be admitted to the Residential Drug Abuse Program, if he meets the requirements for the program. The court also sentenced Philbrick to two years of supervised release upon completion of his imprisonment. The court ordered Philbrick to pay forfeiture in the amount of $86,672,790.00 and restitution in the amount of $82,592,367.00.
While Philbrick’s web of lies ultimately unraveled, the case highlights the consequences of greed and sheds light on the institutions and actors who knowingly or unknowingly facilitate such schemes. There has been much debate surrounding the transparency of the art market, and schemes like Philbrick’s leave the question of what more can be done in order to prevent such schemes from occurring in the future and increase confidence in the art market.
About the Author: Nikki Vafai is a law student at the University of Maryland Carey School of Law and holds a B.A. in International Affairs and Art History from the George Washington University. Nikki is a 2022 fall legal intern at the Center for Art Law.
- Business Partner Of Art Dealer Inigo Philbrick Pleads Guilty To Defrauding Art Buyers And Financers, The United States Department of Justice, (September 23, 2022), https://www.justice.gov/usao-sdny/pr/business-partner-art-dealer-inigo-philbrick-pleads-guilty-defrauding-art-buyers-and ?
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Complaint at 1-2, U.S. v. Philbrick, No. 1:20-cr-00351 (S.D.N.Y. Apr. 30, 2020). ?
Complaint at 1, U.S. v. Philbrick, No. 1:20-cr-00351 (S.D.N.Y. Apr. 30, 2020). ?
Complaint at 2, U.S. v. Philbrick, No. 1:20-cr-00351 (S.D.N.Y. Apr. 30, 2020). ?
- Id. ?
- Complaint at 6-7, U.S. v. Philbrick, No. 1:20-cr-00351 (S.D.N.Y. Apr. 30, 2020). ?
- Complaint at 8, U.S. v. Philbrick, No. 1:20-cr-00351 (S.D.N.Y. Apr. 30, 2020). ?
- Docket Report, U.S. v. Philbrick, No. 1:20-cr-00351 (S.D.N.Y. Apr. 30, 2020). ?
- Id. ?
- Judgment, U.S. v. Philbrick, No. 1:20-cr-00351 (S.D.N.Y. Apr. 30, 2020). ?
- Id. ?
- Id. ?
- Id.; Order, U.S. v. Philbrick, No. 1:20-cr-00351 (S.D.N.Y. Apr. 30, 2020). ?