Trust and Escapes
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 adviser 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 provoke 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 advisers 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.