Inigo Philbrick used to scream his own name in the shower every morning, as Kenny Schachter wrote in his piece for New York magazine. “Inigo! Inigo! Inigo!” the art fraudster would bellow at the top of his lungs as he psyched himself up for an honest day’s larceny. (The ritual became so ingrained that his girlfriend once made him a sweatshirt with the mantra emblazoned in all caps across the front.)
To be fair, young Philbrick probably needed all the self-affirmation he could get. At the height of his dubious powers, the precocious grifter wasn’t just mixing with the biggest players in the cutthroat contemporary-art world—he was allegedly defrauding most of them, too.
Philbrick’s chief ploy was a Ponzi-flavored, plate-spinning act whereby he sold the same artwork multiple times to different buyers. He used artwork that wasn’t his as collateral on purchases he couldn’t afford. And he generally gave credulous bigwigs the runaround—all the while consuming industrial quantities of Ecstasy and claret.
By the time he was arrested, in June 2020, on the remote South Pacific island of Vanuatu, Philbrick was liable for around $86 million of stolen cash. And a Who’s Who of the art market was baying for his head on a spike.
In recent weeks, however, as his legal ordeal in New York creeps toward its dramatic dénouement—sentencing is scheduled for early May—Philbrick and his legal counsel have tried out some fresh gambits in a last-minute plea for leniency. (As it stands, Philbrick is staring down the barrel of a potential 20-year prison sentence.)
The first is to blame the young buck’s bad behavior on the general raucousness of the international art market itself—an unregulated, nepotistic, long-lunching carnival, fueled by cocaine, bravado, and, yes, why not, a little more cocaine.
Poor Philbrick, his legal team implied, had been sucked into this rotten, huffing tornado—like Dorothy in a Zegna suit—until he found himself “drinking alcohol at lunch and … throughout the day, often using illegal drugs as well.” This, his attorneys claim, is simply “how art deals are done.” It is, one has to admit, an interesting play: I’m a decent enough chap, Your Honor—just ask my coke dealer!
The second maneuver is to pull together some references from the great and good of the art world—the same art world, remember, which has just been painted as a corrupting quagmire of sin—in order to shine a light on Philbrick’s angelic character. Seventeen letters from Philbrick’s various associates were produced, including one from his girlfriend, Victoria Baker-Harber, an acid-tongued recurring personage on British reality show Made in Chelsea, with whom he now has a child.(Sample dialogue from Baker-Harber: “Don’t fucking open your fucking fat fucking mouth, you fucking fat turkey.”)
Still, most eye-catching of all is the heartfelt endorsement from towering art twosome Gilbert & George, who knew Philbrick when he was just a baby-faced intern at London’s White Cube gallery, circa 2005, working for one of the darlings of the contemporary-art world, Jay Jopling. From the very first day they met him, the letter says, the pair could see that Philbrick was “a very talented, extraordinarily charming, honest, and decent young person.”
As it stands, Philbrick is staring down the barrel of a potential 20-year prison sentence.
The sentiment may well be sincere, but the tone will be hard to swallow for those personally swindled by Philbrick—including several of the con artists’s close friends; Jopling, his longtime mentor; and even the “godfather of his first child,” according to prosecutors.
The final tactic, meanwhile, is something of a nuclear option, if that’s not too choice a phrase these days. If I’m going down, I’m taking the whole show with me. “The industry is corrupt from top to bottom,” said Jeffrey Lichtman, Philbrick’s lawyer. “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.”
This is often the last resort of white-collar criminals caught red-handed—from tax evaders to bent politicians, to phone-hacking tabloid reporters, to the agents of the financial crisis. I’m not a bad apple—the whole orchard is rotten!
But this defense may backfire, as Judd Grossman, the lawyer representing several civil cases against Philbrick, points out. This is, he says, a rare opportunity to “send a strong message to the art world that fraud will not be tolerated.” Philbrick is the fall guy.
Kenny Schachter, an art-market insider and commentator who was close friends with Philbrick, up until he was scammed out of more than $1.75 million, also wrote in New York magazine how his four sons got a good read on the dashing fraudster early on. They were convinced that Philbrick was either “the next Larry G” (as in “Gagosian”) or a “future jailbird.” With the trial set to conclude in May, Philbrick’s future hangs precariously in the balance. And no amount of shower shouting can help him now.
Joseph Bullmore is a Writer at Large for AIR MAIL and the editor of Gentleman’s Journal in London