About Athena Art Finance
Athena Art Finance is an independent specialty finance company, dedicated to serving the needs of the global art market. Athena Art Finance provides discreet and flexible financing solutions for the global blue-chip art market.
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Latest Athena Art Finance News
Oct 20, 2022
By Aaron Elstein Some boys grow up wanting to be baseball players or firefighters. Inigo Philbrick wanted to be a world-famous art dealer. Specifically, his mother recalled, he aspired to be the next Julien Levy, who introduced New Yorkers to Salvador Dali and Frida Kahlo. Or maybe Pierre Matisse, son of impressionist Henri Matisse. "Inigo is authentically art world born and bred," recounted Jane Philbrick, a former lecturer at Parsons School of Design whose husband, Harry, was director of the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum in Connecticut. Their West Village-raised son was a constant studio companion, attending every exhibition and opening "from literally one week old," Jane remembered. At 27 Philbick opened a gallery bearing his name in London’s posh Mayfair district. He dealt in Jean-Michel Basquiat and other hot artists whose works sold for $5 million or more at Christie’s in Midtown and other leading auction houses. He flew in a private jet, wore a $50,000 watch and got engaged to a British reality TV star after breaking up with his Argentinian girlfriend who runs a perfume studio. By 2016 the gallery Inigo Philbrick Ltd. was generating $65 million in sales, according to a filing with British regulators, and nearly double that the following year. In 2018 he opened a branch in Miami as clients swooned over the young charmer. Philbrick’s success was a forgery. In July he entered a federal prison in Allenwood, Pennsylvania, after pleading guilty to running an art world Ponzi scheme in which he defrauded customers and lenders out of $86 million. He sold the same painting to multiple buyers without their knowledge, forged sale documents and photoshopped paintings to make it look as if he possessed them. U.S. Attorney Damian Williams called him a "serial swindler" who committed "extensive fraud." When it all came crashing down Philbrick, who is 35, fled to Vanuatu, an island nation near Australia. "It seems very clear that he was a keen and talented young man with big dreams," recalled a sympathetic neighbor, Karen Adams, a 49-year-old retired General Electric oil and gas executive. But Philbrick, she understood, was "manipulated by unscrupulous people in the already corrupt world of art dealing." Corruption was endemic in art dealing long before Humphrey Bogart hunted down a fake Maltese falcon. Art is the largest unregulated market in the world after bitcoin and last year $65 billion worth changed hands. Deals are still based on handshakes and faith that your dealer won’t fleece you. After the U.S. Senate published a report showing Russian oligarchs used art to dodge sanctions, the Biden administration is writing regulations to make the market less accommodating for bad actors. "It’s a market where if you look right, talk right and dress right, you can fool some people a lot of the time," said Judd Grossman, a Manhattan attorney who represents some of Philbrick’s victims. Buck Ennis Manhattan Attorney Judd Grossman represents some of Philbrick's victims. Thiago Piwowarczyk, CEO of New York Art Forensics, whose clients include the United Nations and the State Department, said art is unique for the way it makes starry-eyed dreamers out of wealthy buyers who often are astute bargainers. "Art is the only place where the more unbelievable the story is," he said, "the more people believe it." Blessed thou art Philbrick’s birth in 1987 coincided with the art world turning into the art market. The transformation occurred on Nov. 12, 1987, at Sotheby’s on the Upper East Side, when the son of former New York Mets owner Joan Payson auctioned off Irises by Vincent van Gogh. The painting sold for $54 million, even though the stock market had sunk by 22% in a single day a month earlier. It was the third van Gogh to sell for more than $20 million in 1987 alone. The first sale was nearly twice the previous auction record of $11.9 million, set in 1983 by a medieval manuscript. The van Gogh transaction affirmed that art was the hottest investment opportunity in town. "I hope it—everything in the art market—will continue, as the mother of Napoleon used to say, 'as long as it can last,'" New York dealer David Wildenstein said after the van Gogh sale. Along the way art became, in the jargon of financial marketing, an "alternative asset class" that appealed to collectors and investors alike. In 2017 Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi sold for $450 million, still the highest sum ever for artwork. In the spring of this year an Andy Warhol silkscreen of Marilyn Monroe sold for $195 million at Christie’s in Midtown, a record for American and 20th-century art. An index for top 100 artists compiled by the marketplace Artnet produced an 8% compound annual growth rate between 2000 and 2018, compared with 3% for the S&P 500. A price database maintained by Artnet grew from 8,300 artists at 18 auction houses in 1988 to 90,000 artists and 632 auction houses in 2012. Through it all New York remained the dominant destination for art sales, with a 45% market share of auctions, Deloitte found. The art world-born-and-bred Philbrick got his start as a docent and gallery attendant at his father’s museum. In 2010 he landed an internship at White Cube , a contemporary art gallery in London run by Jay Jopling, whose clients include Julie Mehretu and Damian Hurst. After a year at White Cube, Philbrick was promoted to director of secondary sales. His fiancee’s sister deemed working conditions “in nearly all respects, immoral [and] inappropriate.” "The pressure to hit sales targets and slaving absurd office hours was comparable to those kept by Wall Street bankers," she recalled. For an ambitious young salesman, contemporary art offered opportunities. With old masters and impressionists priced out of reach, contemporary art grew from 1% of sales in 1988 to 14% in 2018, according to Artnet’s figures. Yet as the young Philbrick made his way into this fast-moving market, his personal life was in turmoil. In 2006 his parents divorced after his father had an affair with a secretary and left Philbrick responsible for supporting his family, according to court documents. "My mother very clearly told 19-year-old Inigo that he was financially responsible for both her and me," his sister, Clara, said in a federal sentencing memorandum that contained statements from family members and friends. Harry Philbrick denied cutting off his family, though agreed Inigo was given "completely inappropriate emotional and financial responsibilities." This, he opined in a court document, rendered his son "unable to discern that he was on an inappropriate path." ‘You will die’ Philbrick’s London gallery opened in 2014, when global art sales reached $68 billion, a record that hasn’t been broken, according to a report from Art Basel and UBS. He sold fractional stakes in artworks to customers who hoped to resell them at a profit, the way someone would flip a stock or a house. "This wasn’t a group of collectors that cared about art," Philbrick’s lawyer, Jeffrey Lichtman, said in an interview. A handwritten note by Philbrick’s assistant in Miami discussing a repeat customer asked "How to f— them?" Philbrick did that mostly by selling more than 100% shares in paintings to multiple buyers without telling clients. His crime spree involved 29 artworks over three years. To help pay for it, Philbrick turned to Athena Art Finance. Park Avenue-based Athena was founded in 2015 by Olivier Sarkozy, half-brother of the former president of France, and backed by private-equity giant Carlyle Group. Art-finance houses such as Athena grew fast in the past decade, partly because they don’t have to verify customer net worth or sources of funds like banks, which are subject to rigorous “know your customer” laws adopted after 9/11. A dealer told Senate investigators that she "relies on her gut" when picking and choosing customers. The financial system’s blind spot suited Philbrick just fine. "You will die" when you see Athena’s bare-bones financial-disclosure requests, he said, according to a victim’s lawsuit. Athena gave Philbrick a $10 million revolving loan in early 2016. Funding secured, Philbrick began living his dream as the next Julien Levy or Pierre Matisse. He approached London collector Sasha Pesko about teaming up to acquire Basquiat’s Humidity for $18.4 million directly from its owner. Pesko sent $12.2 million for a 66% share, but Philbrick used the money to buy the painting from the auction house Phillips for $12.5 million. He didn’t tell Pesko, nor did he tell him when he sold a 12.5% stake in the painting to a third investor for $2.75 million. Athena raised Philbrick’s credit line by $3.25 million. He also targeted White Cube Gallery owner Jay Jopling, described by prosecutors as his mentor. The two bought an untitled Christopher Wool painting for $3.5 million, which Philbrick quickly sold. When Jopling asked for his cut, Philbrick said there were legal hangups and blamed Martin Herrero, an Argentinian financier related to his girlfriend at the time. For a year Jopling got emails from Herrero explaining why the money hadn’t come. But Herrero didn’t exist. Philbrick and an assistant had sent the emails. Image courtesy of Phillips Humidity by Jean-Michel Basquiat Philbrick’s Ponzi scheme unraveled when he misjudged the market for a portrait of Pablo Picasso by Rudolf Stingel. Philbrick sold more than 100% of the work to three parties for more than $15 million in cash and commitments. Unfortunately, the picture sold for only $5.5 million at a May 2019 auction at Christie’s. Unable to pay his partners, Philbrick defaulted on his Athena loan in October 2019 and a week later fled to Vanuatu, where he lived in a boat house with fiancee Victoria Baker-Harber, cast member on the show Made in Chelsea. "He finds joy in the simplest of things," neighbor Adams said in a letter to the court. "A beautiful tree, a kaleidoscopic sunset, a cheap but exquisite bottle of Sancerre." The fugitive’s idyll ended in June 2020, when FBI agents swooped in and arrested Philbrick, leaving behind a five months pregnant Baker-Harber . An indictment was unsealed a month later and he spent the next two years at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn so he couldn’t flee again. His cellmate, who pleaded guilty to trolling dating websites , said Philbrick kept mostly to himself and avoided conflict, “which can be almost impossible at MDC.” He helped inmates write legal letters and read a biography of Catherine the Great. "I beg you take courage," the Russian empress said, according to a letter from Philbrick’s mother to court. “The brave soul can mend even disaster.” 'I burn' Two weeks after Philbrick was indicted, the Senate permanent subcommittee on investigations released a 150-page report calling to reform the art market. "Given the intrinsic secrecy of the art industry, it is clear that change is needed," the report concluded. In response Congress passed the Anti-Money Laundering Act of 2020. The Treasury Department is drafting regulations that are expected to require auction houses and art-finance firms to know their customers better. "As we tackle systemic challenges like corporate transparency and other loopholes that allow criminals to abuse the U.S. financial system, we will look at what else might be needed to address money-laundering risks specific to other industries, including the art industry," Scott Rembrandt, deputy assistant Treasury secretary for strategic policy in the Office of Terrorist Financing and Financial Crimes, said in a statement earlier this year. The Basquiat that Philbrick secretly bought with his partner's money and then sneakily sold a part of is in a Queens warehouse, according to court papers. Athena was acquired by Yieldstreet, a Midtown firm that markets private-market investments and wouldn’t comment for this article. In November 2021 Philbrick pleaded guilty to one count of wire fraud and ordered to pay $83 million in restitution. On Sept. 23 business partner Robert Newland pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy. At the hearing in which Philbrick entered his guilty plea, U.S. District Judge Sidney Stein asked why he did it. "For money, Your Honor," he replied. "That simple?" the judge said. "That simple." Daniel Tümpel, a client in Germany, lost $22 million and told the judge that Philbrick "knew how enormous the financial damage would be for us—and yet he did not care." It will take years in court to sort out the rightful owners of the paintings Philbrick sold. Grossman, the attorney representing some of the victims, said collectors wishing to demonstrate ownership of art not in their possession can use a UCC-1 form, available on the New York Department of State’s website for a nominal fee. "It can solve a lot of problems, he said. "You’d be surprised how few people do it." At his sentencing in May, Philbrick attributed his criminal activity to the fact that although his name was on the gallery door, the real owner was Jopling. "As I tried to fix that first small problem, all I did was like mushroom, create more problems," he said. He is paying a dear price. He has never met his younger daughter because he’s been locked up her entire life. Federal records show he’ll be released in May 2026. "I burn for her to know me," Philbrick told the judge, "without the separation of prison walls."
Athena Art Finance Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)
When was Athena Art Finance founded?
Athena Art Finance was founded in 2015.
Where is Athena Art Finance's headquarters?
Athena Art Finance's headquarters is located at 400 Park Avenue, New York.
What is Athena Art Finance's latest funding round?
Athena Art Finance's latest funding round is Acquired.
How much did Athena Art Finance raise?
Athena Art Finance raised a total of $280M.
Who are the investors of Athena Art Finance?
Investors of Athena Art Finance include YieldStreet, The Carlyle Group and Pictet Group.
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