Home Arts The gallery of rascals? Three reasons why the art market is vulnerable to wrongdoing

The gallery of rascals? Three reasons why the art market is vulnerable to wrongdoing

by godlove4241
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It is with sadness that I read of the troubles of eminent artistic adviser Lisa Schiff, who is currently the target of two lawsuits claiming that she had defrauded clients and, according to one of them, was running a Ponzi scheme.

I’ve worked with her and have always enjoyed her direct comments and fiery personality, but my attempts to reach her have failed, so I can’t even give her a reaction to the lawsuits. For now, of course, we have to assume she’s innocent.

However, it made me think of other cases in the art market where there were certain wrongdoings, and sadly the list is getting longer and longer. Going back in time, there was Michel Cohen, who swindled some $50 million from art dealers before going on the run (he was never convicted). Or Ezra Chowaiki, who pleaded guilty to a series of charges including fraud in a $16 million scandal, and went to jail, as did London-based adviser Timothy Sammons for defrauding clients out of $30 million. Inigo Philbrick is also in jail for relieving dozens of seasoned art professionals of a staggering $86 million in a series of art deals.

Thieves Gallery

Then there was Anna Delvey/Sorokin, subject of the Netflix series Invent Anna, which has cheated friends and patrons out of hundreds of thousands of dollars, promising a new private arts club in Manhattan and boasting of a non-existent trust fund. Or Angela Gulbenkian, trafficker under her famous name but convicted of defrauding her clients, including for a $1.4 million Yayoi Kusama pumpkin carving. She was also imprisoned.

Gulbenkian’s expenses were detailed in court: $10,500 for a private jet; $3,920 at the Café Royal in London and $16,985 at Harrods, among other expenses. Philbrick was known for chartering private jets; according to the prosecutor, Sammons used his ill-gotten gains to fund a lavish lifestyle.

These cases have several things in common. There is the incessant whirlwind of gallery openings, parties, alcohol and sometimes drugs of the art world, which can lead to a blurring of reality, as well as a sense of invincibility. It seems to inspire misplaced confidence that the next big deal will right the ship and set things right.

Trust is key

Following billionaire clients is another trap. Trust is key: You can hardly be taken seriously if you arrive in a dented cab at a $50 million ranch in California, just as you’re negotiating the sale of a $20 million Rothko. So, the lavish lifestyle — club memberships, private jets, and designer outfits — is actually necessary to inspire confidence in your customers. They need to feel like you’re one of them, but someone who understands the art. Having a chic accent, a smart background also helps, Philbrick style.

But the greatest danger is that the reseller/advisor/agent wants to imitate his clients, to live like them. But they don’t have those billions behind them, so they fund the champagne lifestyle through their company. Which sometimes works, until it doesn’t anymore, and they end up in court, or worse, in jail. Should we be sad or cynical? The jury is out.

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