In a Shift, Notorious Art Dealer Inigo Philbrick Set to Plead Guilty to Criminal Charges in Federal Court This Week

It remains to be seen what type of prison sentence is handed down.

Inigo Philbrick. Image courtesy Patrick McMullan.

Notorious art dealer Inigo Philbrick—who has been incarcerated for nearly a year and a half after being apprehended on an island in the South Pacific in summer 2020—is set to plead guilty to criminal charges this week in federal court in Manhattan.

The guilty plea, which was confirmed in court documents issued by the U.S. Department of Justice, marks a shift for the dealer, who initially pleaded not guilty to criminal charges of wire fraud and aggravated identity theft when he was indicted in July 2020.

He was denied bail by the presiding judge at the time, who agreed with prosecutors that Philbrick could pose a flight risk. He has remained in correctional facilities in Manhattan and Brooklyn since then.

Philbrick’s attorney, Jeffrey Lichtman, did not immediately comment, though he indicated that he would do so following the plea on Wednesday, November 3.

Two weeks ago, Artnet News reported that Philbrick was in talks with the U.S. government to settle the criminal charges, thus avoiding a trial. In a letter to the district court judge in June, acting Assistant U.S. Attorney Cecilia Vogel asked for an adjournment “because the parties are in discussions regarding a potential resolution of the case.” (The judge granted the request, as well as a second one from Philbrick’s attorney citing the “extraordinarily voluminous” amount of discovery documents and a wish to “consider any pretrial motions.”)

It remains to be seen what type of additional prison time Philbrick will receive from the presiding judge, Sidney Stein. In a criminal case with similar allegations, British art dealer Timothy Sammons was sentenced to four to 12 years in a New York state prison after pleading guilty in 2019 to grand larceny, a scheme to defraud, and numerous other criminal counts. Sammons stole between $10 million and $30 million from victims in the U.S., U.K., and New Zealand through the scheme.

In addition to the federal case, Philbrick still faces numerous civil lawsuits from investors who paid millions for artworks or shares in artworks that they mostly never took possession of, and for which Philbrick is accused of improperly reselling and transferring ownership.

“The guilty plea always seemed like a foregone conclusion; the real question now that everyone anxiously awaits is what the length of his sentence will be,” attorney Judd Grossman wrote in an email to Artnet News. Grossman represents several victims who lost millions by doing business with Philbrick, including Aleksandr “Sasha” Pesko, in a suit involving a now-disputed Jean-Michel Basquiat canvas purportedly worth more than $10 million and a multimillion-dollar Rudolf Stingel painting.

One of the largest civil claims against Philbrick was brought in October 2019 by the German investors Fine Art Partners (FAP), which had partnered with him to jointly buy and sell blue-chip works of art, such as a Yayoi Kusama “Infinity Room” and the Stingel now claimed by Pesko and others. But Philbrick allegedly began secretly reselling shares of the works they bought while telling the investment company that it remained the main owner and beneficiary.

That lawsuit, which seeks the return of artworks and up to $14 million, first alerted the public to Philbrick’s alleged misdeeds, which had long been rumored in the art world. Shortly after it was filed, Philbrick shuttered his galleries in London and Miami and vanished. Attorneys for FAP did not immediately respond to Artnet News’s request for comment.

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