The Patrician Bidder
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 speaking 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 as the launchpad for the Young British Artists group that emerged during the “Cool Brittania” period of the 1990s and went on to kick-start 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 through 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 presale 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 in 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.”