Inigo Philbrick, the mysterious, shady, young and handsome contemporary art dealer, who disappeared in October last year after being accused of defrauding clients of over $20 million dollars, was arrested last week on the Pacific Island of Vanuatu.
The FBI released a statement announcing his arrest and detailing next steps. Philbrick will be transported to Guam and is expected to appear before a Manhattan federal court in the coming weeks.
“As alleged, Inigo Philbrick was a serial swindler who misled art collectors, investors, and lenders out of more than $20 million,” U.S. Attorney Geoffrey S. Berman said in a statement. “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.”
The Philbrick scandal first made headlines in October of last year, after the German financial services provider, Fine Art Partners, filed a lawsuit against him in a Florida court, alleging that he was withholding millions of dollars worth of art by artists like Donald Judd, Christopher Wool, Yayoi Kusama and others. The most controversial work in question was a Kusama “Infinity Mirror Room” installation that they claimed Philbrick had refused to return.
The lawsuit encouraged a series of related legal claims that piled up accusations of fraud against Philbrick. Shortly a month later, Guzzini Properties Ltd., a company that collects art, also filed a lawsuit against Philbrick but in New York, alleging that it financed his purchase of a Rudolf Stingel painting, which he later sold without permission or their knowledge. That wasn’t a good month for Philbrick as shortly after the lawsuits panned out, a British court proceeded to freeze his assets.
Prior to these scandals and his work as a “flipper”, Philbrick had operated a gallery with spaces in New York and London. The dealer had been largely considered an up-and-comer in the space, and was mentored by the likes of Jay Jopling, the founder of White Cube gallery, where Philbrick used to work.
An ARTnews profile of Philbrick refers to his business as “a con”, adding that “there were actual transactions taking place, and there were real assets being acquired and sold, but it was all being done against a web of lies.” Kenny Schachter of Artnet News, who also alleges being swindled by Philbrick, wrote in New York Magazine that Philbrick had become a “mini-Madoff of the art world”, taking advantage of the lack of transparency of the market, with no centralized ownership database and fraught regulation, despite the sums of money at stake.
Amid the ongoing legal action, Philbrick conveniently disappeared, causing many to speculate about his whereabouts. According to the FBI, flight records indicate that he left the United States ahead of the reports on the lawsuits in October and November and had resided in Vanuatu since late October.
Meanwhile, Schachter responded to news of Philbrick’s arrest in a June 16 column on Artnet. “Even though I’m personally out a small fortune, I can’t say I’m happy; yes, I was a little scared for my wellbeing — he made multiple veiled threats on my life, but more than anything it’s sad,” he wrote. “Sad, to be clear, that he hurt so many people — and no matter how you feel about well-off art speculators, they are people too (more or less) … It’s sad that my children got robbed of part of their inheritance … It’s also sad that such a bright and talented person would be blinded by greed and hubris and implode so spectacularly. It’s a shame, really.”