At a federal court in New York on Thursday, embattled dealer Inigo Philbrick pleaded guilty to wire fraud, marking yet another dramatic turn in a saga that has captured the attention of the international art world.
Allegations of the 34-year-old dealer’s wrongdoing first emerged in 2019, when the German art firm Fine Art Partners filed suit in Florida, accusing him of having “refused” to return various artworks, including a Yayoi Kusama installation, worth millions of dollars. Other lawsuits soon followed, among them one involving a Rudolf Stingel painting that was allegedly sold without the knowledge of a firm involved in the purchase of the work.
Since mid-2020, when U.S. authorities located him in Vanuatu, Philbrick has been incarcerated. When the FBI arrested Philbrick, it accused him of swindling dealers and investors out of $20 million.
“I made material misrepresentations to art collectors, investors, and lenders,” Philbrick said at New York’s Southern District Court today, as part of a prepared statement read aloud. He added, “I knew that my actions were wrong and illegal.”
Until now, Philbrick had pleaded not guilty to the charges of wire fraud and aggravated identity theft on which he was indicted last year. At today’s hearing, he pleaded guilty to one count of wire fraud, saying that he “knowingly engaged in a scheme” between 2016 and 2019.
“Why did you do this?” Judge Sidney H. Stein asked Philbrick, to which he responded: “The money, Your Honor.” Asked to elaborate, Philbrick added, “I was trying to finance a business, and I needed money to do that.”
Stein said that Philbrick could face a sentence of up to 20 years in prison, and set a sentencing date for March. Because Philbrick pleaded guilty, Stein ordered him to restitute over $86 million and give up all interests in untitled paintings by Christopher Wool and Wade Guyton.
“Inigo Philbrick was a serial swindler who took advantage of the lack of transparency in the art market to defraud art collectors, investors, and lenders of more than $86 million to finance his art business and his lifestyle,” U.S. Attorney Damian Williams said in a statement. “Philbrick has now admitted his guilt and awaits sentencing for perpetrating this extensive fraud.”