A Mayfair art dealer has pleaded guilty to conning investors in a $20 million (£16 million) blue chip scam, telling the judge he did it “for the money, your honour”.
Inigo Philbrick, 34, was arrested in June last year after being accused of selling the same art works to different investors, sometimes at inflated prices, in order to get the money to pay for another.
In 2019, he is said to have resold an artwork for $5.5 million (£4.1 million), only for one person to claim they held 100 per cent of it and another two 50 per cent each.
Works said to be caught up in the scam were 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.
In November 2019, after his multi-million dollar scam unravelled, Philbrick failed to appear for court hearings in both Miami and London. His whereabouts were unknown, even by his then partner Victoria Baker-Harber, the Made in Chelsea socialite with whom he has a young daughter.
Seven months later, the Federal Bureau of Investigation arrested Philbrick in the Pacific island nation of Vanuatu and extradited him to the US. According to reports, he was arrested as he browsed for souvenirs near the beach.
On Thursday, he pleaded guilty to federal wire fraud charges in a New York criminal court and now faces a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison.
Philbrick, who had galleries in London and Miami specialising in post-war and contemporary fine art, was also ordered to forfeit more than $86 million (£63.9 million).
When asked by Judge Stein, of New York’s Southern District Court, why he committed the crime, Philbrick said “for the money, your honour”.
‘Mini Madoff of the art world’
“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.
“While his actions were dishonest and criminal in nature, he’s part of an industry sick from top to bottom where this sort of behavior is sadly commonplace.
“That being said, he apologises to his victims and will do all that he can to make them whole.”
Kenny Schachter, an artist and former friend of Philbrick’s, told the New York Magazine that he became a “talented Mr Ripley figure” who took advantage of the poorly-regulated art market.
“It was a Ponzi-like scheme,” said Judd Grossman, a lawyer representing one of Mr Philbrick’s former clients.
Dubbed “Mini Madoff of the art world”, Philbrick, from Connecticut, US, burst onto the art scene aged 23 after moving to the UK more than a decade ago to study at Goldsmiths, University of London.
His father is Harry Philbrick, is a respected former museum director. His mother, Jane, is a Harvard-educated writer and artist who once taught at the prestigious Parsons School of Design in New York.
In 2010, Philbrick joined London’s White Cube gallery as an intern and quickly won the confidence of its owner, Jay Jopling, who made him director of secondary market sales.
Three years later, he opened the Inigo Philbrick Gallery in Mayfair with seed money from Mr Jopling.
“He struck me as a smart, ambitious young man with a good eye for art and an impressive commercial sense,” Mr Jopling said last year.
This week Damian Williams, US Attorney, said in a statement: “Inigo Philbrick was a serial swindler who took advantage of the lack of transparency in the art market to defraud art collectors, investors, and lenders of more than $86 million to finance his art business and his lifestyle”.
Philbrick will return to court for sentencing on March 18 2022.