Meet the Man Behind One of the Biggest Potential Modern Art Scandals
Article co-authored by Sarah Douglas
A young man with a reddish beard and tailored jacket sat on the aisle at Christie’s New York November 2011 evening sale and calmly underbid four works from the single-owner sale of software mogul Peter Norton’s holdings—two David Hammonses, a Barbara Kruger called Untitled (When I hear the word culture I take out my checkbook), and then a Mona Hatoum that sold for a record $470,500. Later in the evening, the young man finally outgunned his older rivals to take down Andreas Gursky’s Rhein II from 1999; he paid a record price for a Gursky at $4.33 million, which was also the highest price for any photograph at auction.
The sale marked then 24-year-old art-school-graduate-turned-White-Cube-gallery-private-dealer Inigo Philbrick’s debut among the select group of international art dealers who can be seen publicly bidding for and buying works in global evening sales. Although not able to play in the thin air above $10 million, it was unusual and attention-getting that such a young player would emerge in the marketplace. In five years’ time, Philbrick would report to the U.K.’s Companies House database an operating turnover of £50.6 million and a net profit of £1.61 million for 2016. The next year his reported turnover almost doubled to £96.4 million and a net operating loss of £935,117, but that, a footnote explained, was attributable to Brexit-hobbled British Pound Sterling which caused a currency loss of £3.3 million.
Even before Philbrick was able to post such big numbers, he had no trouble regularly getting a table at the A-list-celebrity-favored C London restaurant or holding court while ordering outrageously expensive bottles of Bordeaux, within shouting distance from the Nahmads and Mugrabis, on the terrace of the Three Kings hotel in Basel during that city’s exclusive summer fair.
By May 2015 he had become a familiar figure on that blue-chip circuit, snapping up, at Phillips New York, Rudolf Stingel’s third-party-guaranteed Untitled (1996), a large abstraction, for $1.7 million. Back in London’s Mayfair neighborhood, Philbrick now had his own eponymous gallery where he had been staging cutting-edge exhibitions, such as “Abstraction/Figuration,” which featured works by Joe Bradley and Sterling Ruby, and a two-person Tauba Auerbach and R. H. Quaytman show, both of which opened in 2013. A show of Stingel’s “Instruction” paintings later opened in June 2016.
Not yet 30 years old and without the help of an art-dealing family or a fortune from other endeavors, Philbrick, outfitted in Zegna suits he bought in Italy, was by all outward appearances a tremendous success. In December 2018 Philbrick opened a satellite space in Miami’s Design District, a stone’s throw from the de la Cruz Collection. At the start of 2019, Philbrick was poised to become a major figure in the global art market. But allegations made in recent court cases suggest that beneath what seemed to be success, Philbrick may have been furiously kiting transactions to maintain the impression that he was solvent. He has been accused of having withheld artworks worth millions from a German art firm, triggering a string of legal actions that have included a freeze on his assets in England and Wales and other suits from various entities that have claimed ownership of works that may have passed through Philbrick’s hands.
In June 2019, members of the art world gossipped about Philbrick selling a small Robert Ryman work for what he had paid a few years earlier at auction just to raise cash. By late summer, his many deal-making partners were beginning to demand satisfaction. And, according to recent lawsuits, when Philbrick ran out of string to kite his deals from one buyer to another, works were revealed to have more owners than previously revealed.
Almost overnight, Philbrick joined the fraternity of art-world high-flyers in the global market with accusations against them. There was Michel Cohen who, after running up considerable debts trading commodities, disappeared in 2000 with $50 million of unpaid obligations to his peers. Larry Salander later topped that with a $120 million fraud that ensnared more than 30 dealers, collectors, and investors. He was sentenced to a prison sentence of 6 to 18 years in 2010. Just last year, Ezra Chowaiki was convicted of wire fraud and sentenced to 18 months in prison for a fraud that hit such art-world stalwarts as dealer Helly Nahmad and collector “Baby Jane” Holzer.
Before Philbrick stopped communicating with lawyers and distressed clients in early November, he appeared on email as the confident dealer brushing off a cascade of allegations that could cause him to lose as much as $100 million.
“There is going to be a lot more to this than has come out yet,” Philbrick wrote in an email sent to one of our reporters in late October, after the first lawsuit was filed. “The story is going to be a cautionary one with regards to the professionalization, securitization and legalization of the art world. We are in a period of massive transition where art dealers, collectors, and investors are attempting to turn the arena into one which mimics the worlds of finance and real estate. Alongside this change will naturally come impropriety and the need for increased due caution.”
“It was a con,” attorney Judd Grossman, of the New York firm Grossman LLP, who represents several individuals who claim to be aggrieved investors, told ARTnews. “Whether I’d call it a Ponzi scheme, it’s sort of a variation of one, similar to the one perpetrated by Ezra Chowaiki, just on a much grander scale and probably a little more brazen. 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.”
Grossman continued, “We have one client who Inigo convinced to consign a work to him. Inigo either sold the work and never paid or just stole the work. My guy’s out of the work and has no money.”
Philbrick had a fairly unique position within the art trade. Although he learned his trade with White Cube founder Jay Jopling at that dealer’s gallery and went out on his own with that dealer’s backing, Philbrick was more of a dealer-to-dealer salesman than a guy working collectors. Most of Philbrick’s creditors were art investors looking to buy works they could hold for a year or two and sell for a decent profit. How did Philbrick convince so many experienced art hands to trust him? Several of those who did business with Philbrick or were offered works describe two very different approaches.
In the beginning, Philbrick was able to make his partners good profits fast, specializing in the rising markets of a few artists. Whether by his own smarts or by good fortune, profits came quickly and easily. When he entered into a deal with a new partner and it was successful, Philbrick was quick to pay. This created two kinds of goodwill—the impression that Philbrick was a dealer with a special touch who would pay on time.
A top-class Madison Avenue dealer who had one neutral brush with Philbrick at an art fair said, “The fact that he was able to get access to [his] material was impressive. The fact that he wasn’t paying for it, if that’s the case, smacks of desperation. Whether it’s a bank putting up the money or a finance company, the trust that they clearly had in him, to give him free rein or the license to do what he was doing, was incredible.”
Later, Philbrick switched to another pitch. He would approach the kind of collectors who were interested in getting a good deal, then plead that he was in need of cash and willing to take a loss. For many, the offer was irresistible. One dealer described Philbrick’s modus operandi as being “like a big chase,” adding that he “seemed to always be under the gun.”
“There are a lot of charlatans in the art world,” said New York–based private dealer Albert Bitton, who buys and sells art with partners in London and elsewhere but never worked with Philbrick. “Everyone wants to make a fast buck. It’s happening much more often lately because everybody wants to be a big player, like a Nahmad or a Mugrabi.”
Now those would-be speculators are no longer counting their prospective profits in their heads but wondering how deep their losses will go. “Everyone is just trying to get information on what’s actually happening,” said one private dealer who claimed he was out “seven figures” from his dealings with Philbrick.
Many observers sitting on the sidelines who believe the allegations made in the pending lawsuits now debate whether Philbrick was an honest dealer who got in over his head or whether his habit of buying goodwill with early profits followed by an abuse of trust was a well-planned strategy.
Even if the court does rule against Philbrick, we may never know. “I sold some works for him,” says private dealer and Baer Faxt newsletter publisher Josh Baer, “and it was a clean deal.” That doesn’t mean Baer would vouch for Philbrick, now that the latter dealer has been accused of selling the same work to multiple investors. “If a guy’s done it once,” he said, “he’s done it 20 times.”
Inigo Philbrick’s colleagues in the art world describe him as someone who operated at a high level. He had a good eye, even though he was focused on just a few artists. He was bright and sophisticated. He could rattle off market stats. He was intense and arrogant. He seemed to be a prodigy. In a sense, he was one.
Philbrick grew up in the art world. His father, Harry Philbrick, is an esteemed museum director who started out intending to be an artist. Harry headed up the Aldrich Museum of Contemporary Art in Ridgefield, Connecticut, from 1996 to 2010, overseeing a $9 million capital campaign and a major museum campus expansion project; he then ran the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts from 2011 to 2016. Now he is the director of Philadelphia Contemporary, which he founded in 2017. Inigo’s mother is Jane Philbrick, a Connecticut-based writer and artist. On his father’s side, it’s a patrician family that can trace its roots back to one of Rhode Island’s nine founding settlers who arrived in America during the 17th century.
Philbrick’s parents divorced sometime around 2006, and sources familiar with the family say Inigo didn’t take it well. A period ensued in which he was not talking with his father. (Harry Philbrick remarried in 2009.) “While my son and I have been estranged for nearly a decade now, I love him and want the best for him. The recent allegations I’ve read in the press are deeply concerning,” Harry Philbrick said in a statement, adding that he had “no knowledge” of the allegations against his son beyond what has been reported in the press.
Like his father, Philbrick attended art school at Goldsmiths, University of London, which is best-known known as the launchpad for the Young British Artists group that emerged during the “Cool Brittania” period of the 1990s and went on to kickstart the careers of dealers like Jopling.
In 2010, after attending Goldsmiths, Philbrick started an internship at the prestigious White Cube gallery. Though only 23 years old, he displayed savvy, ambition, and an inclination to work on the secondary market. He went on to become head of secondary market sales at the gallery, a relatively new position at the time. “He struck me as a smart, ambitious young man with a good eye for art and an impressive commercial sense,” Jopling said in an email to ARTnews.
In October 2011, with backing from Jopling, Philbrick set up shop running Modern Collections, a space at 89 Mount Street in Mayfair, devoted to secondary market sales of work by contemporary artists. In the press, Modern Collections’s founding was treated as a symptom of the speed at which artworks were going from the primary to secondary market. A front-page article in the Art Newspaper around the time brooded on “an emerging resale market for artists in the early stages of their careers.” The opening exhibition featured secondary-market works by Kelley Walker and Wade Guyton, two artists who had attracted speculation by dealers. Neither artist was represented by White Cube. But Guyton would become one of the key artists from whom Philbrick gained his fortune.
In 2013 Philbrick decided to go into business on his own, and Jopling agreed to support him financially. Philbrick expanded his trading to include art by Stingel, Christopher Wool, and Mike Kelley (in particular Kelley’s valuable “Memoryware” works.)
As colleagues describe it, Philbrick would take a strong position on an artist, learn as much as he could about where all the work was, and make sure he had pieces to offer. These high-quality works were often priced aggressively. For a while, as the market grew in the period from 2011 to 2015, quality was more important than price. The question, at the time, wasn’t whether one would make money on a good piece but how long it would take.
Soon, Philbrick became active at auction. He developed a reputation for driving up artists’ markets, often establishing new benchmarks. During the run of a Tauba Auerbach show at his Mayfair gallery, in October 2014, he was the winning bidder on a 2010 painting by the artist at Phillips London. He bought the work for £1.14 million ($1.81 million), establishing a new auction record for Auerbach, according to a report by Colin Gleadell in Artnet News.
Philbrick was not shy about sharing his triumphs with followers of his personal Instagram account. On May 13, 2015, Philbrick posted an image of a Stingel self-portrait painting on his Instagram, along with the message, “Sometimes you leave something behind at auction, and regret for seasons to come not throwing a hand up one more time. Other times you get an object you’ve wanted for a long while. This painting I missed once, but tonight I got something else I’ve wanted for an age.”
The Baer Faxt newsletter that night identified the painting as Carroll Dunham’s Fourth Birch (1983), which had come from the estate of dealer Ileana Sonnabend, who had acquired it directly from the artist. Christie’s had given the painting a pre-sale estimate of $150,000–$200,000; Philbrick ended up buying it for $509,000, setting a world auction record for the artist that still stands today. The following year, Philbrick did a Dunham exhibition in his gallery.
This past August, Fourth Birch was for sale in “Hysterical Hosted by Gary Card,” an exhibition at Phillips London, where it carried a price tag of £520,000, according to a Phillips rep. The house could not confirm the consignor, but the representative said that the piece did not sell during the show’s run.
Along the way, one of his greatest boosters—someone who has frequently been seen sitting with him at auctions—was the writer Kenny Schachter. (Schachter told ARTnews that, although he has deep knowledge of Philbrick, he preferred not to share it because he is working on a screenplay about the dealer.)
In March 2015, Schachter told the website Destination Luxury, “I love working with [Philbrick] and his new Mayfair space. Philbrick dwells in the land of secondary market dealing where recently made art is resold, but still displayed in super high caliber exhibition settings featuring amazing juxtapositions like the recent pairings of market high-fliers Tauba Auerbach and R.H. Quaytman and Sterling Ruby and Joe Bradley. The prices are sure to be more than the first time around, but so is the quality of the fare you are certain to see.”
Schachter put Philbrick on his “Movers and Shakers” column in the August 17, 2015 issue of Baku Magazine, writing, “Philbrick[’s] … new gallery on Davies Street made a splash with its spectacular opening show this summer featuring Mike Kelley and Sterling Ruby, and we can expect the high quality to continue.… Surely a talent that will be moving and shaking not just now but for decades to come.”
In December 2018, Schachter took to Artnet, where he has a regular column, to praise Philbrick’s brand-new, now-shuttered gallery in Miami. Earlier that year, Schachter told a story that illustrated just how chummy the two were.
“A few years ago, advisor Todd Levin of the Levin Art Group—which I gather is Todd and his assistant—lashed out in a thread on my Facebook page, but rather than attack my (probably untenable) art argument,” Schachter wrote in his Artnet column, “he chimed in with a dig at my in-laws. Sometimes the art world resembles the schoolyard. Todd was bidding on a Twombly work on paper as I related the story of his unprovoked meanness to the friend I was seated next to.” Several auction observers identified that “friend” as Philbrick. “Levin manically flicked his wrist to indicate each successive bid with such fervor that my friend determined he’d go higher—and, in a move of unheralded solidarity, threw up a bid of $100,000 higher, which Levin topped. In other words, Levin’s Facebook transgression cost him $200,000 more than he would have otherwise had to pay for the work, which cost him $1,455,000 on an estimate of $800,000 to $1.2 million.”
It is unclear to what degree Inigo Philbrick’s downfall was wrapped up in his personal life. Philbrick’s move to Miami seems to have been connected to his break up with the London-based Francisca Mancini, a Buenos Aires–born art adviser recently turned perfume maker. The two are listed together as supporters of a 2018 exhibition of work by Danh Vo at the Guggenheim Museum in New York.
Some saw Mancini as a stabilizing force in Philbrick’s life. (She declined to comment for this article.) It seems that, as of October 2018, she and Philbrick were no longer together. That month, Philbrick popped up in a photograph in London with the British reality TV star Victoria Baker Harber, who appeared in the show Made in Chelsea. Philbrick appears in Baker Harber’s social media as early as July 2018. (Baker Harber did not immediately respond to a request for comment.)
In a February 2019 interview, Baker Harber was asked why she moved to Miami, and she said, presumably speaking of Philbrick, “My boyfriend recently opened a gallery in the design district and we were both tired of London so to pick up and make a move seemed like a good idea.”
Philbrick’s change of location also seems to have coincided with a change in his business practices—or, at least, so he claimed in the fall of 2018 when he told the Art Newspaper that he offered around 20 to 25 third-party guarantees a year on works by artists like Stingel, Wool, Kelley, Richard Prince, and Guyton.
“For me, the best outcome of a guarantee is that you make a lot of money [without buying the work],” he told the Art Newspaper. “Say it’s a million dollars that you’ve risked, then you’d want to make $100,000 to $150,000 as your fee. The second-best outcome is that you get a work you were happy to buy at a price you were happy to own it at. The second-worst outcome is that it sells on one bid and you make $5,000, having put in all this effort to negotiate a deal. [And] the worst outcome is the sort of guarantee you do purely for financial speculation and end up with a painting you don’t want to own.”
Auction house personnel who did business with Philbrick insist he was always careful to settle his accounts with them promptly. While the lawsuits claim that individual investors might have to wait for their money, the auction houses never did. At this juncture, if the extent of Philbrick’s financial constraints that the lawsuits suggest are accurate, it seems unlikely that Philbrick had the resources to guarantee 20–25 works each year or even the ability to cover the several works a season that he might have had to acquire when no other bidders appeared.
With that in mind, Philbrick may not have been entirely candid this past May, when he told Kelly Crow, of the Wall Street Journal, that he was “experiencing a measure of “guarantee fatigue,” and had persuaded one of his clients to offer up two pieces in sales that month without any risk protection. He told the Journal, “So far, we’ve turned down four potential guarantors. But we think the market is hungry and healthy, and if you trust the market, bidders will show up.”
That gamble on the market would turn out to be the biggest one of his career, and when the bidders failed to show up, the lawsuits imply, his entire business strategy started unraveling.
Many art-market observers attributed Philbrick’s fall in part to changes in the markets of artists whose work he sold, in particular Stingel, Wool, and Guyton.
In October 2011, the same week Philbrick opened Modern Collections, a small “X” painting, by Wade Guyton, Untitled (2007), sold in a Sotheby’s day sale for £163,250, more than twice its high estimate of £80,000. In 2014 Guyton’s market, which had been steadily growing, soared to new heights, with his work selling for up to $6 million at auction and $350,000 on the primary market. The average price of his works at auction went up 240 percent over the previous year. In May 2014, at Sotheby’s New York, Philbrick, according to the Baer Faxt, was an underbidder on a 2006 “Flaming U” work by Guyton that sold for $6 million, which to this day remains the artist’s auction record.
The momentum continued. In November 2015, Philbrick was the winning bidder on a 2005 flaming “U” work at Phillips in New York. He paid $2.4 million for it. “It was an aggressive estimate,” he told the New York Times after the sale, saying that he bought the work on behalf of a European collector before adding that “there was competition for the work which I liked.”
Since then, there have been fewer competitors bidding for Guyton’s work, and his secondary market has leveled off. But most people didn’t associate Philbrick with Guyton. As one art advisor put it, Philbrick was “the king of Stingel.”
“I’m pretty centrally placed in the Stingel market,” he said in a June 2016 Art Market Monitor podcast, where he also estimated that he had been buying and selling Stingel’s work for seven or eight years. (Art Market Monitor is owned by the same parent company as ARTnews.) “And I’d say that on the secondary side it’s fairly rare for paintings to transact without my having some sort of tangential involvement, just because I’m also someone who gets called a lot for advice by both other dealers and collectors. And sometimes I have somebody calling me for advice about a picture they are selling while I’m simultaneously getting someone else calling and asking if it’s a good painting and they should buy it.”
Stingel’s market peaked in May 2017, when a self-portrait, Untitled (for Sam), sold at Christie’s New York for a record $10.5 million. In 2018, it was a different story entirely.
This past June, Eileen Kinsella of Artnet News reported of Stingel’s market, “Of 35 works offered at auction since the start of 2018, 8, or 22 percent, were bought in. Roughly the same number of works (34 lots) were offered in 2017, the year the artist’s record was set. Four went unsold, while one was withdrawn.” Phillips specialist Henry Highley told Kinsella at the time, “You can’t have exponential growth at all times and there has been a few points where it’s plateaued a bit, which is healthy.”
Even a major show of Stingel’s work held at the Fondation Beyeler in Switzerland during the apex Art Basel fair last June failed to bring the heat. If the allegations in the lawsuits are true, then a torpid Stingel market was a threat to Philbrick’s business strategy, as it began to shut off the supply of new money.
But Philbrick didn’t know that in the spring. He had his hopes pinned on the Beyeler exhibition. In an email that appears as an exhibit in the lawsuit filed by the German art firm Fine Art Partners (FAP) against Philbrick, the dealer told FAP that a Fondation Beyeler show would push the value of a Stingel painting of Picasso to $14 million, far above the artist’s $10 million record set in 2017.
If the claims made by FAP in its lawsuit are true, then Philbrick seems to have risked everything on the Stingel painting selling in Christie’s May sale when the Beyeler show was still a tantalizing prospect. If he was, in fact, running his business as FAP alleges, then it is possible that he was counting on scoring with the Picasso so he would have enough cash flow to get his various unsuspecting partners off his back—at least for a little while.
The end came very slowly, and then all of a sudden, as the Stingel painting sold neither for the $14 million Philbrick promised, nor for the $9 million he claimed, according to FAP’s lawsuit, to have received a guarantee for, nor even for the $6.5 million price Christie’s posted after the auction because the buyer, dealer Stellan Holm, would end up paying only $1 million of the purchase price before halting payment on his winning bid. A representative for Christie’s said the house is awaiting a decision from the court on who owns title to the painting.
It is hard to know whether Philbrick had thought through the squeeze the Stingel Picasso was putting on his arrangement. But the picture’s disappointing results set in motion what the lawsuits claim are the key events in exposing the full extent of his dealings. The Stingel sale was clearly the breaking point for FAP. Unsatisfied with the documents Philbrick produced to support his assertion of the $9 million guarantee, FAP, according to its lawsuit, went directly to Christie’s to verify his claim. An email from the auction house’s general counsel of the Americas, attached as an exhibit to FAP’s complaint, stating Christie’s belief that the document was not authentic may have helped provoked the lawsuit.
At this point, title to the Stingel Picasso portrait is disputed between FAP; the beneficial owners of Guzzini, an entity that claims it bought the painting for $6 million, along with two other works; and the company Satfinance, which believes it, too, has an ownership interest.
In the June 2016 Art Market Monitor podcast, Philbrick spoke about the importance of trust between himself and other dealers and advisors who might be involved in a deal. “For me the ideal thing is that you have trust with the person you are talking to, and because you two have this great relationship, it saves me the work of having to have a great relationship with the person that you already have a great relationship with.”
In light of the claims made in the FAP lawsuit and the media coverage that has resulted, Philbrick has likely lost that trust. The once-impressive young man’s name has become notorious, a byword for another potential art-market scandal. “I was a client, like all his close friends,” Schachter said. “I was a victim.”
Even Jopling, who did so much to launch Philbrick’s career and seems to have trusted him far longer than might have been prudent, expressed dismay at his downfall. “I am aware of the serious allegations made against Mr. Inigo Philbrick,” he wrote in an email. “It has hurt and saddened me to learn that Mr. Philbrick, whom I respected and whose early career I supported, has not only betrayed my trust but, it appears, that of many others. We are privileged in our industry to work closely with the artists and art that we love. I am enormously disappointed that Mr. Philbrick appears to have abused this position of privilege.”
He added, “I was shocked to discover the allegations of serious wrongdoing by Mr. Philbrick in U.S. media reports in October 2019. At the earliest possible opportunity, I applied for an injunction against Mr. Philbrick to protect my interests.”
Correction, 12/4/2019, 12:05 p.m.: A previous version of this article misstated details about a Stingel work that Philbrick acquired in May 2015. The untitled work was dated 1996, not 2000, and he bought it for $1.7 million, not $1.15 million. This article has been edited to reflect this.