Genius steals, Picasso once said. But stupidity can be light-fingered, too. Angela Gulbenkian, 40, the millennial grifter who has just been sentenced to more than three years in prison on a pair of fraud charges alleging that she misappropriated more than $1.3 million, had seemed neatly positioned to have a long and perfectly respectable career in the world of art. She was a member of one of Europe’s most renowned art-collecting families. She had an eye for fashionable and commercial pieces. And she seemed to possess the contacts, the gall, and the guile that this opaque and chummy game has long required.
Unfortunately for her, she was also monumentally greedy—far beyond the common or garden-variety rapacity of your average dealer. This was a private-jet-hopping, Harrods-spree-shopping, keeping-up-with-the-Gagosians level of avarice. And it could only be sustained by one of two things: spectacular success or a spectacular swindle. It has now become abundantly clear that Gulbenkian chose to take the Picasso route.
The saga began in 2017, when Mathieu Ticolat, a Hong Kong–based art adviser, shelled out almost $1.3 million for a giant, 179-pound spotted-yellow-pumpkin sculpture by the artist Yayoi Kusama. Gulbenkian, who describes herself on Instagram as an art collector and name-drops the Gulbenkian Private Art Collection in her bio, took the money and claimed she would arrange the purchase from a Singapore-based company called Artseen.
But instead of paying the sellers, and delivering the pumpkin to the buyers, Gulbenkian simply pocketed the cash—“and went on a vast shopping spree to Harrods, to Watches of Knightsbridge, to Agent Provocateur, chartering private jets and going to all the party spots,” says Chris Marinello of Art Recovery International, who was hired by Ticolat to track down the missing cash.
“The seller was waiting for the money,” Marinello continues. “They wrote to Angela several times and warned her, and said we’ll sell it elsewhere. And eventually they did.” Ticolat, however, “was still trying to get the sculpture released. Angela had been making excuses that it was being restored and repaired and there were customs issues, and was stringing them along. And every time Mathieu got insistent, she’d say, ‘Don’t bother me. I’m on my holidays,’” Marinello says. “She was obnoxious, rude, and entitled.”
Mathieu Ticolat, a Hong Kong–based art adviser, shelled out almost $1.3 million for a giant, 179-pound spotted-yellow-pumpkin sculpture by the artist Yayoi Kusama.
Meanwhile, Gulbenkian continued to jaunt about from South Beach to Greece to London (“the Instagram art scene,” as Marinello puts it), racking up unpaid bills. She stiffed Percy Bass, a 100-or-so-year-old interior-design business in Knightsbridge, on payment for an elaborate redesign of her apartment. “She was obsessed by the pumpkin sculpture,” the company’s managing director, Jane Morris, says by e-mail. “And everything in her flat had to be in similar colors and circular. We designed a wallpaper for her bedroom with large pink dots.”
Marinello has also alleged that Gulbenkian wired $288,000 to her mother, in Germany, for safekeeping. “The mother claims it was a perfectly legal loan, and seems to have no intention of paying it back,” Marinello tells me. “I guess the apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree.” Gulbenkian even pinched $65,000 from her masseuse.
As the charges stacked up, a judge froze Gulbenkian’s assets in June 2018—but that didn’t stop the fraudster from flogging a Warhol print of Queen Elizabeth II for $150,000, despite having no right to sell it whatsoever.
In April 2019, a U.K. warrant was issued for Gulbenkian’s arrest. But by then she was holed up safely in Germany (which has no extradition treaty with the U.K., owing to Brexit) and claimed she had no U.K. assets to seize, let alone freeze. It wasn’t until June 2020—after failing to appear at a London court proceeding that February—that authorities finally tracked Gulbenkian down in Lisbon and took her into custody. In July, she pleaded guilty in London’s Southwark Crown Court to orchestrating one fraudulent deal and to stealing money from her masseuse.
Names are everything in the art world, and Gulbenkian’s appeared to hold more weight than most. The con artist was married to Duarte Gulbenkian, the great-grandnephew of the British-Armenian oil magnate Calouste Gulbenkian, whose endowment backs a $3.2 billion art-based foundation and a museum in Lisbon. “She held herself out as part of the foundation,” explains Marinello. “She created a fake e-mail address: gulbenkianfoundation.com, or something.... But she was a nobody, and just happened to marry a Gulbenkian, who, as it happens, was part of the nobody part of that family anyway.” (Tellingly, Angela Gulbenkian’s Instagram handle is @Pantaraxia, a word coined by billionaire tycoon Nubar Gulbenkian, son of Calouste, to mean “an action aimed at keeping people on their toes.”)
Kenny Schachter, a well-known art dealer, critic, and commentator, shrugs at Gulbenkian’s ploy. “When someone presents themselves in the art world with a last name that’s got renown and historical resonance, you can’t fault someone for falling for it,” he says. “It’s more just the bad faith and malfeasance of the girl in question that’s the issue.”
“Inigo dwarfs this, anyway,” he continues. “His scam was in the many, many millions. She was just playing around with a million or so.”
Schachter is referring to the roller-coaster case of Inigo Philbrick, a buccaneering young dealer and onetime associate of his who scammed the art world (including Schachter himself) out of around $70 million through equally bogus deals, before being arrested last summer on the remote Pacific island of Vanuatu.
“Every time Mathieu got insistent, she’d say, ‘Don’t bother me. I’m on my holidays.’”
The similarities between Philbrick and Gulbenkian are certainly striking: two millennial movers and shakers who leveraged well-known names (in Philbrick’s case it was super-dealer Jay Jopling and his White Cube gallery) to concoct brazen scams, before splashing the proceeds on jets, jewelry, and jeroboams in order to keep up appearances. “They had the same M.O. You build up your image—the watches, the cars, they all imply success,” Marinello explains. “Then you rip people off. And when you’re caught, you deny everything—you say you were tricked, you lie, you deny it all.”
“We’ve been doing more and more of these fraud cases,” Marinello continues. “Especially during the pandemic. People need to do due diligence on the work itself, and the people handling the artwork. Angela was very much part of the new Instagram generation of art dealers, where the lines are more blurred.”
Schachter agrees. “This case is symptomatic of our times, and the increasing number of players in the arena,” he explains. “If you’re a good-faith art dealer, you can’t just rock up and buy a Kusama from the gallery, because there are waitlists and other obstacles in play. And a waitlist isn’t really a waitlist—it’s a measurement of status, and it’s a game of sorts.” This scarcity and competition, he believes, makes many dealers unusually vulnerable to fraudsters and con artists. “Greed is as natural as breathing and going to the bathroom. And wherever there’s big money, there are going to be bad actors,” he says. “It’s a bell curve of morality in this world. And the art world is no different.”
Equally troublesome, Marinello says, is the art world’s long-standing reluctance to deploy basic precautionary measures, such as legal contracts or escrow accounts. “They all continue to do deals based on handshakes, and pay people money based on friendships. Some of these dealers and collectors take umbrage if you ever suggest you need to put money in your lawyer’s escrow account. They get offended, and they say, ‘How long have you known me? We went on holiday together! You know my family! We’ve got other deals to do! How could you ask this?!’ And that’s when things start to go wrong.”
Gulbenkian has now been sentenced to three and a half years in prison, but it’s unclear whether her victims will ever see their cash again. “There are many fraudsters out there,” Ticolat told the South China Morning Post. “Some of these professional scammers do get caught, but the damage they inflict is tremendous.” Schachter, meanwhile, believes the infamy could well be the making of Gulbenkian. “Anna Delvey is a perfect example of this. Someone who stole a few hundred thousand dollars, and then spun it into a whole media circus. Gulbenkian will serve some paltry sentence, and then as soon as she’s out, she’ll write a book and get a Netflix deal,” he says. “That’s just the way it is right now.”
Joseph Bullmore is a Writer at Large for AIR MAIL