Letter from London: The Art of Losing at Art

While the real world was still bombing itself to oblivion last week, I found myself reading up on the exploits of a freshly released British-born American art dealer called Indigo Philbrick, who has just spent time in a low-security federal prison in Philadelphia. This was for the largest art fraud ever committed in US history. (The estimated cost to his victims was $86 million.) Basically, super-wealthy collectors bought from Philbrick percentages in high-value art pieces which in fact he was selling multiple times over. (Some discovered they didn’t have a stake at all.) With an interesting backstory including American parents in the East End of London, a father who became director of The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum in Connecticut, dealers such as Jay Jopling, who Inigo Philbrick worked for and who later became one of his victims, Sotheby’s, Christie’s, Phillips, another victim in a Saudi prince, all the fun of the art fairs, his tale was swiftly reading to me like a Hollywood movie. As if Inigo Philbrick didn’t know that.

Not that art was always a plaything for the rich or wannabe rich. Over forty years ago, painting the walls of a temporary art space on Edinburgh’s freezing Royal Mile for Richard Demarco, I remember people waxing lyrical about artist Joseph Beuys not money. There was talk of nuclear disarmament, striking miners, feminism, gay liberation, UK race riots, Northern Ireland, but never about how much an artwork was worth. Even outlier art dealers like Robert Fraser in London who was selling works by Claes Oldenburg, Bridget Riley, Ellsworth Kelly, Jean Dubuffet, Hans Bellmer, Richard Hamilton, Brian Clark, Jim Dine — old footage of ‘Groovy Bob’ recently featured in Peter Jackson’s Beatles documentary Get Back — possessed mischief rather than dollar signs in his eyes. That said, Francis Bacon had unsettlingly dark qualities which one or two people I knew found uncomfortable.

As the soft blue waters of the South Pacific Ocean lapped around Inigo Philbrick’s ankles before his capture on the island Vanuatu — despite the fact Vanuatu had no extradition treaty with the US — I wonder what kind of art still inspired him. Was it the Trinidad paintings of Peter Doig? Or a book, instead? How about Somerset Maugham’s novel The Moon and Sixpence loosely based on French artist Paul Gauguin, with its own escapee of sorts in its principal character Charles Strickland settling in Tahiti? Or was it all those still awaiting lawsuits, claims, and asset-seizure orders? A colorful character, indeed.

Cut to balmy summer evenings on Cork Street in the early 80s before Philbrick was even born. This was where most of London’s contemporary art was being bought or sold, including at the hugely important Marlborough Gallery (presently shocking many people by winding down its operations). Back then, you might see a real-life bearded Peter Blake collaged into the crowded street like his Sgt Pepper album cover, or Craigie Aitchison with his pink and blue poodles. If really lucky, you might catch a glimpse of a reliably colorful David Hockney. Whatever you did, you were there to celebrate art. If sales were becoming king on Cork Street, alcohol not greed was still its lubricant.

In New York by 1984 the young artist Keith Haring was already taking regular Concordes to Europe. A superbly talented Jean-Michel Basquiat, some of whose work would get caught up in Philbrick’s art fraud, was having his first show at Mary Boone’s SoHo gallery. Dollars were falling out of some artists’ pockets like confetti. I was labelling slides at Grace Mansion Gallery in the East Village, plus attending an art fair in London with curator and artist Sur Rodney (Sur). Gracie’s business model placed her artists first, so any adoration of money over art was muted. Lebanese-born British art gallerist Edward Totah meanwhile was looking for help as he opened up his own space opposite Paula Cooper on Wooster Street in New York’s SoHo. Though Totah-Stelling Art was meant as a celebratory hub for mostly British artists, darkening clouds were descending on the art world from all directions. Even the Basquiat-Warhol exhibition at nearby Tony Shafrazi’s gallery was slammed by critics. (Warhol and Basquiat were seen one night bickering at the restaurant Indochine close to the Joseph Papp Theater.) More importantly, the natural exuberance of the East Village art scene with its long nights at 8BC and happy days of selling art began faltering in the face of a full-blown AIDS epidemic. (Touchingly, Haring had just stated in public that he hoped to heal himself by painting.) Extraordinarily, people’s tastes seemed to shift to consciously ‘unfeeling’ art such as found in the Neo-Geo movement and artists Peter Halley, Ashley Bickerton and Haim Steinbach of International With Monument. In the uptown art world, meanwhile, dealer Andrew Crispo was implicated in the sadomasochistic ‘death mask murder’ of young Norwegian fashion student Eigil Dag Vesti, with Crispo’s assistant Bernard LeGeros given 25 years to life for murder. Following the awful death of artist Carl Andre’s Cuban-born artist partner Ana Mendieta, who fell from the 34th floor of Andre’s apartment only a few blocks away on Mercer Street, Paula Cooper appeared rocked, though Andre would later be acquitted of murder.

Only one person to date has been implicated alongside Inigo Philbrick. This is Robert Newland, Philbrick’s former business partner, who last September was sentenced to 20 months in prison. (Newland also worked for Jay Jopling.) According to Philbrick’s fiancée Victoria Baker-Harber, there are still others who remain at large: ‘There are major people who are complicit and have evaded any consequences so far, aided by Inigo keeping his silence. These others that come to mind must now be very nervous,’ she told one reporter.

Back in the mid to late-80s, people still looked to artists over dealers, though figures like Leo Castelli commanded high profiles. Elsewhere, cracks were becoming large fissures. Inexplicably, artists like David Wojnarowicz were suddenly losing their appeal. This was the market playing tricks. (His prices are high once again.) One of Edward Totah’s most successful artists was Derek Boshier. He kindly invited me down to Houston to give a talk on the rise and fall of the Lower East Side. As if in honor of the fall, I would quit the art world shortly afterward. Nor was it any surprise to me years later when I would hear the 80s described as the decade that changed the art world forever. As Rob Goyanes wrote in 2018 about a retrospective of 80s art at the Hirshhorn in Washington DC, ‘These works and artists represent the subsumption of pop and capital into art, but also the radical transformation of the art market itself: the complete commodification of the artwork, enabled by New York’s bursting one-percent and the stratospheric ascendance of artists as celebrities and financial elites.’

The art world of course continued and continues. In London in 1988 was Damien Hirst’s seminal Freeze exhibition. Just as Jeff Koons had begun to explore his corporate nous if not always creative genius, Charles Saatchi — along with Jay Jopling — was beginning to navigate Hirst through shark-infested waters. Instead of the lunatics having taken over the asylum, the magnates had sequestered the studios, or become artists themselves. It was no longer Joseph Beuys in a room with a coyote (‘I Love America and America Loves Me’). It was a giant beast moving slowly through the water devouring everything in its way — from collectors crushed by the fact someone had outbid them in public, to artists themselves.

Of course, Indigo Philbrick is already riding high again. He shows more nerve than many of today’s artists. He is also riding at speed towards a Hollywood showdown with talk already of a three-part box-set called The Real Inigo Philbrick Story — A Tale of Fortune, Fame and Fraud. So don’t forget the artists, Inigo, as you gallop across the plains. When you eventually make camp, as I hope you do, I hope you will still see beauty in a sunset. I hear on the grapevine you might even want to become a dealer again. Would this be for the sequel?

Peter Bach lives in London.