June 14, 2020

On the run high-flying art dealer Inigo Philbrick apprehended

Image Right: "Humidity", 1982 by Jean-Michel Basquiat
acrylic, oilstick, and Xerox collage
In a reality that seems like a scene snatched from the Spanish crime series La casa de Papel, the once-vanished, serial swindler Inigo Philbrick was arrested on Thursday on the Republic of Vanuatu, an archipelago of about 83 islands in the southwest Pacific. The high-wheeling art dealer once operated an HNW fine art business, which included a gallery in Mayfair London, and, beginning in 2018, one in Miami, Florida.
Rudolf Stingel Painting of Picasso, 2012
involved in Inigo Philbrick Lawsuit

According to the unsealed complaint issued by the Southern District of New York, from 2016 to 2019 Philbrick, a U.S. citizen, repeatedly sold multiple high-value artworks to different collectors and investors, sometimes using the same works of art as collateral for loans with financial lenders while intentionally hiding others’ ownership interests.

One of those artworks was a $10 million painting by the contemporary artist Jean-Michel Basquiat titled “Humidity” painted in 1982.  The Basquiat accusation came after Philbrick was already facing allegations that he had sold other artworks, by artists Yayoi Kusama and Rudolf Stingel, to multiple clients. 

By October 2019, Philbrick stopped returning concerned investors' phone calls, and by November 2019 the dealer had no-showed for a hearing in Florida and two scheduled London court appearances, one related to a hearing brought by Singapore-based LLG PTE Ltd., and others by German art investment partnership, Fine Art Partners (FAP GmbH).  Philbrick had been buying and selling paintings for FAP since 2015.

With both of his galleries shuttered and emptied, the Miami branch in such a rush that there was still food left in the refrigerator, the judge in the UK issued a temporary order freezing Philbrick's worldwide assets.  A short while later, Philbrick's own attorney, Robert Landon, filed a motion on November 12 seeking to withdraw from representing his client, but it was too late, the dealer had vanished. 

FAP was already involved in a civil lawsuit with Philbrick in Miami, Florida seeking to recover 14 million dollars worth of art from what has been deemed an elaborate transatlantic Ponzi scheme.  In that instance, the German firm had purchased, among other things, one of Kusama's "infinity mirror" rooms entitled “All the Eternal Love I Have for the Pumpkins” from Philbrick, only to later find out that the artwork had also been sold by the dealer, in 2019, to the Saudi Collection of the Royal Commission for Al-Ula (MVCA).  

With his house of cards rapidly collapsing around him, it first seemed that the pump and dump dealer on the run had decided to lay low in Australia.  Later it was discovered that he had been living on the remote and tiny necklace of 80-odd islands between Australia and Fiji known as Vanuatu, possibly helped by funds he may have stashed in Vanuatu’s offshore banks. 

The Republic of Vanuatu, once known as the New Hebrides, gained its place as an offshore financial center in the early 1970s before the island-state achieved its political independence from Great Britain and France on July 30,1980.   In 2015 it gained unwanted notoriety as an offshore tax haven thanks to the leaked Panama Papers which unmasked many offshore corporate clients’ who hid their wealth via thousands of shell corporations set up in tax lenient locations around the world.

As a result of its AML/CFT deficiencies, Vanuatu has been listed on the FATF's grey list of countries, alongside countries like Syria and Yemen, as well as on the list of uncooperative tax havens that the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) re-activated in July 2016 at the request of G20 nations.  Purportedly the country is now working on repairing its reputation as a financial pariah. 

Philbrick has been formally charged with Wire Fraud and Aggravated Identity Theft.  Arrested by agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation on June 11th, the art broker has now been flown some 4000 kilometers from his hide-away to Guam.  Tomorrow evening he will make his virtual initial appearance in the Southern District of New York where it is expected he will plead not guilty.

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