By Aaron Katersky (ABC News)
A disgraced gallery owner known as the art world’s “mini-Madoff” — a reference to jailed financier Bernie Madoff — has been taken into custody on the South Pacific island nation of Vanuatu, according to federal prosecutors in New York, who have charged Inigo Philbrick in a $20 million fraud scheme.
Vanuatu authorities expelled Philbrick at the request of the U.S. Embassy in Papua New Guinea. He was transported to Guam, where he is expected to be presented in federal court Monday.
Philbrick was an art dealer specializing in post-war and contemporary fine art with galleries in London and Miami. He fled the country last year after he was accused of, among other things, selling the same piece of art to multiple buyers.
“Inigo Philbrick was a serial swindler who misled art collectors, investors, and lenders out of more than $20 million,” said U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Berman. “You can’t sell more than 100 percent ownership in a single piece of art, which Philbrick allegedly did, among other scams.”
Philbrick, who is charged with wire fraud and aggravated identity theft, bought at auction a 1982 painting by Jean-Michel Basquiat titled “Humidity” for $12.5 million, according to the criminal complaint. He allegedly told an investor he paid $18.4 million.
The investor, the FBI said, wired Philbrick $12.2 million for a joint ownership stake. Philbrick allegedly then sold a second ownership stake to a different investor without disclosing it to either.
“Mr. Philbrick allegedly sought out high-dollar art investors, sold pieces he didn’t own, and played games with millions of dollars in other people’s money,” said FBI Assistant Director Bill Sweeney.
Philbrick also misrepresented the ownership in a 2010 untitled painting by Christopher Wool and a 2012 untitled work by Rudolf Stingel that depicted Pablo Picasso.
The FBI said the three-year scheme began to fall apart in 2019 when investors and lenders started asking questions and demanded money.
“Philbrick’s unpaid debts mounted and various investors began demanding the return of their investments or artworks,” the complaint said.
His galleries closed and he fled the country. He had been living in Vanuatu since October 2019, federal prosecutors said.