The stele as seen on the Louvre Abu Dhabi’s website
On Art

Dodgy deals and a suspect stele

There is an infinite number of ways of conning collectors, investors and even institutions too

This article is taken from the July 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

If it were a painting it might be called Déformation Professionelle in Three Studies. A trio of recent cases has highlighted that sharp practice in the world of dealers and galleries has never gone away. Historically, anywhere where connoisseurship — the expertise of the eye — plays a part is open to manipulation, and so it continues to prove.

Perhaps the most striking of the cases is that of Jean-Luc Martinez, the director of the Louvre, no less, from 2013 to 2021. In late May, he was detained by the OCBC, the French agency in charge of investigating the traffic in illegal antiquities, and charged with “complicity of gang fraud and laundering” and “concealing the origin of criminally obtained works by false endorsement” in relation to objects smuggled out of Egypt during the Arab Spring and subsequently purchased by the Louvre Abu Dhabi.

A trio of recent cases has highlighted that sharp practice in the world of dealers and galleries has never gone away

The case is further wrapped in a thick layer of irony since Martinez is France’s special ambassador for cooperation on cultural heritage and the man who reports to Emmanuel Macron on the restitution of artworks to African countries, one of the President’s pet projects.

The charges relate to a pink granite stele depicting Tutankhamun, bought in 1933 by a German naval officer, and acquired with four other works for €8 million in 2016 and then purchased by the Louvre Abu Dhabi. Items entering the museum’s collection require the approval of a commission co-chaired by the director of the Louvre, which was then Martinez.

The charges against Martinez follow the arrest of two Parisian antiquities dealers, Roben Dib and Christophe Kunicki, both accused of gang fraud and money laundering. Dib was the man who brokered the sale of the stele while in 2017 Kunicki sold a golden sarcophagus to the Metropolitan Museum of Art for €3.5 million which was later seized by the authorities and returned to Egypt. Other purchases from the two men by the Met and the Louvre Abu Dhabi, totalling more than €50 million, are currently under investigation.

Martinez has denied the accusations against him and while some commentators have accused him of turning a blind eye to concerns raised about the provenance and export status of the stele, others suggest he is the victim of traffickers rather than an accomplice.

The Louvre has rapidly distanced itself from its former director, stressing “the utmost, unwavering and ongoing commitment of its scientific experts in the struggle against illicit artwork trafficking”. It should also be borne in mind that under French law and its protracted procedures, the charges merely indicate Martinez is suspected of involvement in a crime, and a trial is not a foregone conclusion.

Inigo Philbrick

In Florida, meanwhile, a dealer named Daniel Elie Bouaziz has been charged with a series of offences around the selling of fake works of art. His two galleries sold pictures by a top-notch roster of twentieth-century artists, including Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Banksy, to the citizens of Palm Beach. Bouaziz is suspected of buying cheap reproductions and then providing them with false seals of authenticity. He claimed to an undercover FBI officer that he bought an unsuspected work by Basquiat at auction for $495 for which he was now asking $12 million. He also sold a $100 facsimile of a Warhol for $85,000; two reproductions that cost him $600 were bought by a collector for $120,000; while a $485 Lichtenstein print went for $25,000 — to an undercover agent.

Even before the FBI investigation, some of his buyers had become suspicious — not least when experts pointed out that the works they bought for thousands would, if real, be worth millions — and, it seems, demanded their money back. In some cases, Bouaziz facilitated repayments.

The paintings involved in the case of Inigo Philbrick were, however, authentic. Philbrick, a 34-year-old English-born American, used to work with the big-cheese contemporary art dealer, Jay Jopling, before opening his own galleries in Mayfair and Miami. Despite this real success, he has recently been sentenced to seven years in prison for an illicit scheme that made him $86 million.

When the judge asked him why he committed the crime, Philbrick replied: “For the money, your honour.”

Philbrick would buy glitzy contemporary works and then inflate the price he had paid and sell part ownership in them — in some instances amounting to more than 100 per cent — to multiple investors without telling them; use works as collateral on loans and not inform the co-owners; and falsify documents — sometimes using a stolen identity — to bump up the value of a piece.

Philbrick’s activities were revealed when he defaulted on a $14 million loan, resulting in a flurry of lawsuits. Philbrick hightailed it to the Pacific island of Vanuatu where he hid for eight months before being discovered and extradited. When the judge in New York asked him why he committed the crime, Philbrick replied: “For the money, your honour.” Exactly what Philbrick was up to has been cleared up, but a knot nevertheless remains to be untangled. It is both unclear just how many paintings Philbrick used to finesse his funds — restitution requests have been received for 16 works, and counting — and who are the rightful owners since, in effect, Philbrick sold ownership more than once.

So it is caveat emptor still and further proof that art fraud can be as imaginative in its multiple forms as art itself. If there is more than one way to skin a cat then, it seems, there is an infinite number of ways of conning collectors, investors and even institutions too.

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