‘He Didn’t Hide Who He Was’: Locals Describe Disgraced Art Dealer Inigo Philbrick’s Carefree Life on the Lam on a South Pacific Island
Locals were aware that authorities were closing in. But Philbrick may have had no idea.
Locals were aware that authorities were closing in. But Philbrick may have had no idea.
Last Friday, Inigo Philbrick and a friend were strolling through artisan markets in the center of town in Port Vila, Vanuatu—an island nation in the South Pacific—when all of a sudden, Philbrick’s face went white.
Several vehicles screeched up alongside them, the friend recounted, and a slew of men—a mix of uniformed Vanuatu police officers, marshals in polo shirts, and others in plainclothes—jumped out.
“Are you Inigo?” they asked the startled 33-year-old, who was casually dressed in swim trunks, a t-shirt, a baseball hat, and espadrilles.
When he replied “yes,” they grabbed him and hustled him into one of the nearby cars.
Philbrick’s friend demanded to go with him, but instead was put in the back of a separate car, flanked by an officer on either side. One of the men confiscated her two cell phones. Then the cars took off, speeding through traffic with sirens shrieking until they arrived at the local airport, where a large Gulfstream jet was waiting on the tarmac.
The companion watched as Philbrick was led away in zip ties by two officers, who told her she could have her phones back after the plane took off. Two sources who spent time with the dealer on the island said they feared the worst—that it was some sort of abduction prompted by an aggrieved client who was owed money by the embattled dealer. When one of the officials explained they were taking Philbrick to Guam under instructions from the FBI in New York, it provided a modicum of relief, they said.
They tried—unsuccessfully—to track the plane based on the tail number.
So ends the latest chapter in the ongoing saga of Inigo Philbrick, the wunderkind dealer who rose to the upper echelons of the art market before the house of cards he built collapsed, his galleries in London and Miami shuttered, and he vanished.
Over the past eight months, civil lawsuits piled up alleging Philbrick stole tens of millions of dollars worth of artwork, misappropriated sales proceeds, borrowed money against art he didn’t own, and sold overlapping shares of artworks. The litigation has shone a light on the darker corners of the art market and the byzantine financial maneuvers employed behind the scenes to prop up prices and obscure the identities of players involved on either end of seven-figure transactions.
Now that Philbrick is in federal custody, the criminal case against him is likely to air even more dirty laundry. But his arrest has also offered the first peek into how he has been spending his time in exile. Roughly half a dozen local residents on the island of Vanuatu spoke to Artnet News on condition of anonymity as they described Philbrick’s sudden arrival on the island and the casual, daily routine he fell into in the months leading up to his sudden arrest.
On an island as small as this one, any new arrival was bound to set the gossip mill churning—never mind someone as seemingly well-connected as Philbrick. At least one source told Artnet News that he stood out in a place where most expats tend to be “hippies.” He used his cell phone constantly, took tennis lessons several times a week, frequented a nearby coffee shop, and become involved in animal rescue efforts. He even adopted a dog of his own.
Interestingly, Philbrick openly used his real name with local businesses and to sign up for tennis lessons, suggesting he may have been overly confident about evading authorities based on what he believed was the absence of an extradition agreement between the US and Vanuatu. Although he tried to retain a low profile, sources said, sometimes he couldn’t help but mention his status in the London art scene.
One local suggested that the choice of Vanuatu may have been his undoing. “He didn’t hide who he was and underestimated the power of word of mouth,” the local said. “News of his identity spread rather quickly. It was only a matter of time before the authorities took notice.” Two days after his arrest, it was front-page news in the local paper.
Prior to last Friday, neither the FBI nor the Department of Justice would confirm that there was an active or criminal investigation into Philbrick, despite the slew of lawsuits in the US and several international asset seizures granted in the UK. Now they have revealed charges, which include one count of wire fraud and one count of aggravated identity theft. Along with labeling him a “fugitive” in their statement, they allege he operated a $20 million fraud scheme.
Philbrick and his legal counsel could not be reached for comment. A source familiar with the situation says the dealer was never notified of a criminal investigation or any type of arrest warrant. Philbrick’s defense attorney in Guam, according to the source, offered to buy him pants and a proper shirt since he arrived in a swimsuit. Neither the FBI nor the DOJ has responded to Artnet News’s request for comment.
“Our clients and we are incredibly grateful for the government’s tremendous efforts in tracking down Philbrick and beginning the process of bringing him to justice,” said attorney Judd Grossman, who is representing plaintiffs including collectors Sasha Pesko and Andre Sakhai for claims against Philbrick that are worth millions.
Shortly after the first bombshell lawsuit came down the pike last October—from German finance company Fine Art Partners in a Miami court seeking the return of $14 million—Philbrick and a companion turned up in the remote island nation, which is best known for hosting the ninth season of the hit television series “Survivor.”
Sources confirmed there were stops in New Caledonia and Australia along the way, and several trips back and forth to Sydney in recent months. Otherwise, the dealer largely stayed put. Philbrick negotiated to take over a house that belonged to the family of an expat who died in a tragic accident and was living rent-free. He also became involved in animal rescue efforts to address the island’s large population of abandoned or ill dogs.
“He was always calling me about an animal he found,” one local said. “Inigo is a very kind person. Honestly… I’ve only known him for six months… he did more good here in that time than most expats in a lifetime.” He added that “they are actually mourning Inigo’s departure in Mele village.”
Others were more indifferent to Philbrick’s presence, but became increasingly curious as they read about his exploits online. Some sources were clearly testing the waters to see who might be offering a reward for information about his whereabouts, including by reaching out to Artnet News and other media.
“I see him on pretty much on a daily occasion, usually at coffee in the morning,” one resident said an an email. “He’s started to grow a gingerish curly beard. He’s living the life of Riley in terms of accommodation, car, etc.”
A photo he shared showed Philbrick at a local cafe, the Rossi cafe and restaurant in Port Vila. Asked for comment, a cafe employee named Michelle said she realized he was a customer after reading about his arrest in the paper. “We have no idea about this person,” she said. “He was always quiet.”
While Philbrick may not have been aware that authorities were closing in, residents suspected the hammer might be about to fall. One source said that financial managers on the island received notification letters from local authorities with Philbrick’s picture and inquiries about whether they had done business with him.
Another source—the man who shared the coffee shop picture—said that border control agents were prowling the area for about a week leading up to his capture with a laptop, comparing white males for a match.
In the few days since Philbrick was arrested, reactions from locals appear to run the gamut. Some residents we spoke to noted that the island, which reportedly has no coronavirus cases, has been on strict lockdown since early March. One local financial consultant who spoke with Philbrick recalled reminding him of the impending lockdown and was somewhat surprised to learn that not only did he have no plans to depart soon, he was even considering purchasing property. Given the tight quarantine restrictions, some locals were curious why an outside aircraft was allowed to land and foreign agents were permitted to enter the country for the extraction.
Others fear that Philbrick’s presence may only exacerbate the stereotype of the island as “a sunny place for shady people.” One local said: “Rather annoyed that yet again a fraud has used our small nation as an escape. We unfortunately see this often as Vanuatu is barely on a map and also a tax haven.” The source noted that Philbrick “even made friends with some of my own family members” and seemed “like a really well-educated and trust-deserving person”—but he was “unfortunately too keen to boast of his doings and ‘successes’ on the London art scene in particular.”
While some became increasingly concerned about what they were reading in international press reports, others have stuck by him. The local who supported Philbrick’s animal rescue efforts said: “Everything I’ve read after he confided in me… is such a juxtaposition… to how I knew him… he was far from flash. I’m sick of seeing pictures of him in his bloody art uniform.”
Before long, Philbrick may be wearing another outfit entirely. He will soon be en route—if he isn’t already—back to the mainland United States, where he will face a bail hearing in New York.
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