‘The money is not real – it’s a feckless level of wealth’: the inside story of the biggest art fraud in American history

<span>Orlando Whitfield: ‘I’m not proud of the lies I told as an art dealer.’ </span><span>Photograph: Kate Peters/The Guardian</span>
Orlando Whitfield: ‘I’m not proud of the lies I told as an art dealer.’ Photograph: Kate Peters/The Guardian

Orlando Whitfield is a youngish man, shy, with a reddish beard. His hands are aggressively tattooed, as if they’d been laid, backs down, on wet newspaper. The ink is a form of armour, he says, like his pranking brand of humour (for a while his iCloud hotspot was “Lord Lucan’s iPhone”). But he’s earnest, too, quick to draw on a literary quotation. Today he has arrived at lunch apologetic and soaked through, having been caught on his bike in a downpour.

We’ve met at the Academy Club – his choice – an old-timers’ haunt in Soho, London, with black oilcloths on tables and stained wainscotting. “Hogarth’s dining room,” he calls it. We’re here to discuss his former best friend Inigo Philbrick, the London-based American art dealer who swindled friends, business associates, investors and collectors out of millions of dollars before going on the run in 2019. Philbrick, 36, was jailed in 2020. In 2022 he was sentenced to seven years for wire fraud and ordered to forfeit $86m (£68m). A stunned art world is still puzzling over how he pulled off this heist. The maître d’ brings a fan heater to dry Whitfield’s jeans.

Whitfield, 37, is not the obvious candidate to lay a grenade under the art market – which had a global estimated value in transactions of $65bn in 2023. Yet arguably that’s what he’s doing by laying blame with the system as much as Philbrick in his book All That Glitters. It details his decade hustling alongside Philbrick, caught in such exploits as twice trying to remove Banksy graffiti from private property; couriering, possibly illegally, a Lucian Freud in hand luggage on a transatlantic flight; selling a Paula Rego for cash in a Lisbon hotel room, as well as making hundred-thousand-dollar deals in seconds on the strength of an iPhone photo.

He describes the art market as a corrupt, unregulated orbit sloshing with drugs, $5,000 bottles of wine, yachts, private jets, prostitution, and populated with oligarchs and “sons and daughters of the sinister rich” – all built around betting on “wildly unstable assets of no intrinsic value”. In the end being a part of it made him sick (literally). But Whitfield’s crazed escapades contract to microscopic next to those of Philbrick, whom the FBI says committed the largest art fraud in American history. He dealt in the “secondary” market – reselling pieces that have been sold before – to individual collectors and investors who grouped together for high-value works.

He focused on select artists, including Christopher Wool, Wade Guyton and Rudolf Stingel, betting on them at auction, driving their value up by millions. He stood accused of identity theft, forging documents (including from Christie’s), selling paintings without their owner’s knowledge, inventing collectors who didn’t exist, and of overselling fractional shares in single paintings (adding up to 220% of one work’s value). When a federal judge in Manhattan asked him why he had done all this, Philbrick replied, “Money, your honour. I was trying to find business and I needed money for that.”

Many rich friends and business associates – the FBI identified 24 – are still processing the extent to which they were conned. Among them: British property dealers David and Simon Reuben, through Simon’s daughter Lisa, who ran their art fund Guzzini Partners; businessman and collector Andre Sakhai (whose own father, Ely, ironically, was convicted of art forgery); investor Aleksander “Sasha” Pesko; gallerist Damian Delahunty; Jay Jopling, owner of White Cube, whose secondary market business Modern Collections Philbrick ran and who has suffered “substantial financial loss”, according to a spokesperson.

Jopling features large in Philbrick’s story. The man who launched the Young British Artists (YBAs), including Tracey Emin and Damien Hirst, was Philbrick’s mentor. He gave Philbrick an internship, paid his college fees, employed him, gave him a £500,000 fund to run and later went into business with him. “It has hurt and saddened me that Mr Philbrick, whom I respected and whose early career I supported, has not only betrayed my trust but … that of many others,” Jopling said in 2022.

The artist and writer Kenny Schachter, who lost $1.75m to Philbrick, described him as “the art world’s mini-Madoff” (a reference to Ponzi scheme financier Bernie) in a furious article for Vulture. Schachter thought they were close friends – he reeled off trips to St Moritz, Spain, Dijon, Milan, Paris “on jets Philbrick had chartered”– as well as riotous nights on MDMA and “industrial” quantities of wine and Monkey 47 gin. When he realised what Philbrick had done, he messaged him: “You’re like The Talented Mr Ripley.”

So Philbrick lied, betrayed and manipulated everyone in his circle. Truly, he was the bad art friend. Why is Whitfield telling his story? What he tells me over lunch is this: it started as collaboration, it ended as exorcism.

* * *

Whitfield’s friendship with Philbrick dates back to 2007 when they were students at Goldsmiths, University of London. Over near-15 years their lives entwined: they worked together, set up a business, shared a flat. “Inigo and I always used to joke we would write each other’s biographies, that we knew each other well enough to be both Boswell and Johnson to each other,” he says.

Whitfield first made smirking eye contact with Philbrick when a student coming late to a class was told they were studying the male gaze and said, “I thought we weren’t meant to call them that any more … The male gays.” Philbrick, Whitfield says, was “effete” with “bee-stung lips” and “a wild mess of hair”, the sort to talk about skincare and pieces in the New York Times.

Both were 19, but Philbrick had “the assurance and poise” of someone much older. “I can’t say he was popular,” Whitfield writes. “Then again, I wasn’t, either.” One evening, Philbrick invited him to a party in his eccentric lodgings near the British Museum. They stayed up until dawn “fuelled” by cocaine laid out on a novel by Edward St Aubyn, a writer they discussed with intensity.

They agreed to meet in New York that summer. Whitfield was to be interning at Christie’s, where his father had worked as an auctioneer, while Philbrick would be shuttling between divorced parents – his father, Harry, was director of the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum in Connecticut; his mother, Jane, a Harvard-educated artist who teaches at Parsons in New York. Whereas Whitfield’s own father was “a man sutured to a corduroy armchair, listening to Wagner and drinking shitty red wine”, Philbrick’s “drank beer and listened to Neil Young and, you know, would take us to bars”. It was through his parents’ connections that Philbrick had already started interning at White Cube, where he was working on an exhibition by Gilbert & George.

He wore Milanese suits and was driven in a blacked-out Mercedes; I cycled to work and wore my keys on a clip on my belt

These were heady days. Whitfield felt “intoxicated”: “I’d never had a friend like Inigo, someone to discuss books and films and art and music with in an unabashedly earnest fashion.” The friendship was the most formative of his life, he says – a statement borne out by the detail he remembers of their encounters, down to Philbrick’s tortoiseshell Ray-Bans, mismatched socks and “startling” childlike handwriting. He can summon Philbrick’s voice in his head, the soubriquets he used: “Dude”, “playboy”, “big boy”, “bro”. “I almost studied him, in the way a painter will study the brushstrokes of the old masters or a writer Hemingway’s sentence structure.” He noticed how Philbrick compartmentalised his life, while allowing Whitfield close enough access “to know that there was a secret”.

Around this time, Philbrick asked Whitfield if he’d like to work with him, “putting together a few deals”, and Whitfield agreed “without hesitation”. They set up I&O Fine Art and their first deal was on a painting by Paula Rego. The owner had been offered £4,000 by her London dealer and asked Philbrick if he thought he could get more. Through Goldsmiths, Philbrick made contact with a Spanish dealer, and through him, a Portuguese dealer, who offered them €15,000 cash – €12,000 for the owner; €1,500 each for them.

Whitfield says it “happened in a blur”: they flew to Lisbon, the Rego between them, and after dinner, the dealer handed over a fat envelope of euros. Easy. Delirious, they ordered champagne from room service and Whitfield “did that thing you see in hip-hop videos of throwing a pile of cash into the air”.

That autumn, Philbrick demonstrated his unusual nous when he sent Whitfield a photo of a pair of industrial doors from a building in Hoxton. At the bottom was graffiti: a rat wearing a baseball cap holding a beatbox on his shoulder. Philbrick had also sent it to a contact at Phillips auctioneers who’d told him it was Banksy, worth £80-£90,000. Philbrick wanted Whitfield’s help buying the doors off the building supervisor by offering him £10,000. The supervisor said he’d get back to them. But the following Monday Whitfield answered his phone to Philbrick. “They fucked us!” he was shouting. “The door, it’s fucking gone!”

A few months later, Philbrick took Whitfield to Clerkenwell where, next to a motorcycle shop on a wall by an empty lot, was a large painting: four stencilled figures of old people wearing streetwear, one sitting on a beatbox. Above, in pink spray paint, the words OLD SKOOL. This would be worth significantly more than the rat, they realised. Only, how to remove it? After weeks of research, they found a builder who agreed to attempt it and approached the manager of the motorcycle shop. “You’re too late, I’m afraid,” he told them. “German fella bought it.” The fella had paid £1,000. In 2012, this Banksy was valued at £300,000.

* * *

At White Cube, meanwhile, Philbrick’s knowledge and brio came to the attention of Jopling, who offered him a “proper” job. Philbrick swapped the jeans and Chelsea boots for brown brogues, grey flannels, open-necked white shirts. “Inigo became the adult in our relationship, a dismissive older brother whom I couldn’t help but want to please,” Whitfield recalls. Philbrick started attending Hans Ulrich Obrist’s Brutally Early Club, to discuss ideas over coffee at 6.30am, and became actual friends with Gilbert & George, as well as Sir Norman Rosenthal, former exhibitions secretary at the Royal Academy. (“One of the many relationships I saw go sour,” Whitfield says. “No real idea why. It seemed all his relationships were transactional and therefore mostly had use-by dates.”)

In 2009, their relationship was put back on an even footing when the two friends took a flat together in Camberwell, south London. Philbrick was adapting quickly to the sorcery of the art market, as assistant collection manager at Jopling’s Modern Collections. A limited company to hold Jopling’s personal art collection, it contained some gems, but also lesser pieces he began to sell at auction. With the proceeds Philbrick sought “new opportunities”, artists he thought undervalued.

But Jopling frustrated him, he told Whitfield. For instance, “[Philbrick] would negotiate an artwork that he and Jopling had agreed was a good buy at, say, $700k down to $625k, only for Jopling to do an about-face, saying he wanted to buy it for $600k and telling Inigo to walk away from the deal.” Philbrick’s recourse? He’d tell Jopling he’d bought for the lower number when asking for payment authorisation. “When Jopling replied with his approval, Inigo would then alter the number in the email chain and forward it to the accounts team.” Philbrick’s salary rose quickly, from £35,000 a year to £35,000 a month. He was 23 years old.

By autumn 2011, Jopling’s faith in Philbrick had grown so enormous, he gave him the keys to a gallery at 89 Mount Street in Mayfair. Here, Philbrick opened with a show of Wade Guyton and Kelley Walker. Walker had been selling for $30-$40,000, but prices soon leapt to almost $1m. A piece in the Art Newspaper cautioned: was this Too Much Too Young? It quoted dealers and advisers who saw these trades as “irresponsible”, “inappropriate” and “confusing”. Philbrick sided with the art dealer David Zwirner, who argued it was just “pioneering different business models”.

To understand the tide Philbrick was riding, Whitfield explains how the art market was changing at this time. The gold rush had begun with the YBAs in the 90s and was driven by cash from the former Soviet Union, the dotcom boom, the explosion in PR know-how, and opportunistic collectors such as Charles Saatchi. Once an artist is established and their work comes up at auction, the estimate is gauged by what the market might pay. It’s in collectors’ interests to make sure all pieces by artists they own remain buoyant, so as not to tank the value of investments. Ergo, there are a number of rich interested parties. If an artist’s stock goes down, dealers face their wrath. “Sometimes galleries from different countries representing the same artist will band together to protect the market by bidding up the price of the work at auction, or even purchasing it back,” Whitfield says.

Art is an asset class. Works bought for investment are often not put on walls, but kept in locked storage in places such as Switzerland, to avoid tax (and divorce lawyers). “Specullectors” spread risk by buying shares of a valuable work, with the explicit intention to resell when the market rises. Unlike property, there’s no way to check ownership (unless there’s a loan against a work), so unscrupulous dealers can keep buying then reselling work at increasing prices, manipulating the market.

By late 2011, Philbrick had moved out of Camberwell and in with his girlfriend in Mayfair. The next summer, he invited Whitfield to meet him at the Mount Street gallery and afterwards for a drink. As they walked into the Connaught hotel bar, Whitfield noticed how he peeled off £20 notes and pressed them on staff. Once seated, Philbrick offered him a job: publications manager – thinking up themes to tie disparate artworks together for gallery exhibitions, then writing up the brochures.

It didn’t sound too bad, certainly better than the publishing job he had at the time. “I convinced myself that I could use Modern Collections as a launch pad to greatness,” Whitfield says. “But delusion has always been a strong suit.” He describes the difference between him and Philbrick: “He wore Milanese suits, Loro Piana shoes and was driven in a blacked-out Mercedes; I cycled to work and wore my keys on a clip on my belt.”

I went through a real-life curtain reveal. Until then, I’d told others, ‘I don’t think he’s an awful person.’ And I don’t necessarily think he is, but …

Whitfield saw little of Philbrick at the gallery – he was “seldom in the same time zone” – and it was around then that Kenny Schachter met Philbrick. They quickly became “art-world wingmen”. “Friends would accuse me of loving [Philbrick] and I can’t deny that,” Schachter wrote for Vulture. “Not in a physical way so much, though there was admittedly a lot of horsing around.”

Schachter had money, but Philbrick helped make him a good deal more. He’d sell him a Wool for $800,000 or a Stingel for a million, then they’d flip it “and both pocket a few hundred”. Schachter was amazed at the way Philbrick used a network of proxies, “even actors playing an art-interested version of themselves to starstruck gallerists”, to help him procure works to flip.

While both liked partying, Philbrick had a “hefty appetite for drugs”, Schachter says, and “the company of prostitutes”. As time went on, this appeared to affect his judgment and he became dangerously fearless: “He was rarely without MDMA or ketamine brazenly carried in his briefcase or pocket from one airport to another.” (Philbrick’s lawyer acknowledged his use of alcohol and drugs, stating this “intensified as he entered London’s art world” and was “how art deals are done”.)

By now Philbrick had upgraded his Rolex for a 5990 Patek Philippe Nautilus, his suits were $7,000 a piece and he was boasting about buying Gio Ponti furniture. He was doing his deals in Cipriani in Mayfair, a hedge fund hangout where he had a house account. A side-note is that he simultaneously had time for a relationship with Francisca Mancini, an Argentinian artist, with whom he had a daughter in April 2017. By then he’d also met – on the yacht of investor Sasha Pesko – Victoria Baker-Harber, a cast member of Made in Chelsea, and begun ferocious pursuit. Some months later, he left Mancini and began a relationship with Baker-Harber, with whom he now has a three-year-old daughter.

It was in Cipriani in January 2017 that Whitfield himself did “the biggest deal I have ever pulled off” when he sold a Christopher Wool to Philbrick. He had stopped working for Modern Collections in the summer of 2016 and was now running his own gallery. The Wool had been offered to him by another dealer, a friend, but he had been explicitly told not to sell it to Philbrick. So, here he was doing the dirty on that dealer-friend.

On his iPhone lying on the table between their gin gimlets, “the Wool looks far from impressive – but that is hardly important to Inigo,” Whitfield writes. “What we’re looking at is a sales document, a trade … This is business, not art.” Philbrick looked at it “for no more than five seconds”. Whitfield asked for $600k, Philbrick offered $450k. They agreed on $500k. “It was that easy. It made me feel like a fraud.”

The payment terms were 30 days. All Whitfield had to do was keep his dealer calm. But 30 days elapsed and the dealer was calling every hour to ask where the money was. Philbrick was stalling. Instead of paying, he booked Whitfield on a first-class flight to New York, and Whitfield went, thinking surely this would finalise the deal. After a crazed night, reminiscent of a St Aubyn novel, Philbrick disappeared, leaving just a scribbled note saying he’d gone to Arkansas.

With no payment and in a panic, Whitfield transferred from his own nascent business a 10% deposit of $50,000 to the seller. It was everything he had. Days passed. Whitfield texted Philbrick. “Come on, man, can you please just let me know what’s going on?” The reply was terse, dismissive. Philbrick was busy, he said: Whitfield should learn to “manage his clients”.

More days passed, then another week. Whitfield was beside himself, unable to sleep and suffering from heart palpitations. The invoice was four weeks overdue and Whitfield was looking at losing everything if the seller kept his deposit and cancelled the sale. He went to see Philbrick in person, but at the gallery, staff blocked his path. Philbrick was in a meeting, they said. “You know he’s not going to see you, Orlando.” Whitfield sloped home in despair. Three days later, the money miraculously arrived. He never found out why Philbrick had delayed it so long: “He was evasive when I asked.” But here’s a weird thing: the eventual auction estimate in June 2017 was $150-$200k, far less than Philbrick had paid. It sold in London for £293k, a loss of over $125k.

After that, everything changed. Whitfield believes the stress over that deal, compounded by other issues – the breakup of a relationship, the death of his father – contributed to a dependency on Xanax and tramadol, and an eventual breakdown. In February 2018 he spent two weeks in a psychiatric ward, at first on suicide watch. In treatment, he made a decision to give up his career as a dealer. “It was,” he says now, “a lot harder than quitting drugs. I don’t take Xanax any more, but I still pick up every art dealer’s call when they’ve got gossip for me.”

His abiding advice? “I’d never recommend anyone to invest in art, I think it’s an incredibly poor idea.”

* * *

Whitfield began a new, quieter, life. First, he worked as an apprentice paper conservator in London and then – turning the bedroom that had once been rented by Philbrick into an office – he began to write. It was a career he had thought of pursuing years earlier, even applying for a creative writing postgraduate degree. He wanted to write about the art world, he knew that. About his experiences, the corruption. He’d drawn up a proposal and sent it to publishers. Then something fell into his lap: Philbrick got back in touch.

Whitfield knew from news reports that Philbrick had vanished from Miami in October 2019, his creditors in meltdown. So he was surprised to open an email from British Airways telling him he’d been added to Philbrick’s “friends and family list” (meaning he could benefit from Philbrick’s airline rewards). “Does this mean you’re not coming back?” he hastily messaged on Telegram. “Not for a while,” Philbrick replied, then went quiet again. Whitfield could see by the double ticks that he was reading messages and links he was sending from the international press.

When Philbrick finally surfaced again it was over a patchy line from the Pacific island of Vanuatu. He’d bought a beach-front house in Mele, he said. A Doberman puppy, Bacchus, was audible in the background of what became regular calls to discuss the media coverage. “They don’t even have 10% of what I did,” Philbrick said.

What he wanted, he told Whitfield, was for them to collaborate on a magazine piece putting forward his side of the story. The way he told it, Whitfield says, “he was just a young man in over his head”. And Whitfield believed him. Next, Philbrick emailed him “an enormous trove” of documents – spreadsheets, correspondence, details of financial dealings that stretched back years. Philbrick told him, “For better or worse … I have a little star power just now. I’m hoping some of that might rub off on you. Good for both of us.”

Philbrick clearly thought he was safe – Vanuatu has no extradition treaty with the US. But on 11 June 2020, out shopping in the local market with Baker-Harber, he was confronted by police in flak jackets. They bundled him into a red Ford and on to a Gulfstream V, and he was flown to Guam, a US territory, then to the US.

In whose interest is regulation? If you are rich, you can do whatever you want. Who is going to change that?

At that point, Whitfield had written only 2,500 words. It was a story Philbrick told him about buying a painting by Rudolf Stingel for $300,000, through an insurance company contact. The work had been worth $3m but had been written off because of severe water damage. Philbrick claimed he’d restored it, sourcing the original gold enamel paint and respraying the 2 metre x 2.5 metre canvas in a lock-up garage in Mayfair in 2018.

He had already sold it into a fund he ran for an Israeli-Canadian billionaire for $1.75m. Then he resold it for $2.5m into a fund he joint-owned with Jopling. (A mark of how hard it is to pin down the truth in Philbrick’s accounts is this: Schachter claims Philbrick wanted to buy the Stingel from an insurance company, but was refused, so created an exact replica. The current whereabouts of the painting/replica is unknown.)

They could no longer speak, but Philbrick was emailing Whitfield as he was moved through different facilities, joking at one point that he hoped he wouldn’t get the “Epstein Suite” at the Metropolitan Correctional Center in New York . “Quite funny, to be fair,” Whitfield says now. “He is irreverent. Could always make me laugh like nobody else. He had an amazing kind of easy-come easy-go [attitude].” Understandable, “if you’ve made that much money by the time you’re 30”.

Left going through the “trove”, Whitfield quickly saw the volume of information could not be distilled into one article. The sheer complexity of Philbrick’s crimes was baffling – “Still now I don’t know if I’ve really figured it all out” – and piecing it together was “like working on a jigsaw big enough to cover a football pitch”.

Philbrick knew Whitfield was writing an art world book. “But at a certain point, I realised there was no way of me being able to write my story without writing parts of his.” Not only were they “inextricably” bound, but “his story was emblematic of everything that I felt was bad about the art market”. After he told Philbrick this, communication stopped. By the time he’d waded through all the documents, “any collaboration between him and me had become impossible. I had to go it alone.”

So Whitfield sat at his desk, wrote a Rachel Cusk quote on a Post-it – “Wanting people to like you corrupts your writing” – and stuck it on his computer. Coffee in hand, he got to his desk at 7am daily for the next year. At one point he saw his relationship with Philbrick as like Nick Carraway’s with Jay Gatsby. “I was sort of trying to write bad Gatsby. Because Jay was a good guy in the end.”

The chapter Whitfield called in his head What Inigo Did he wrote last, having read all the documents he had been sent, as well as those of the court case. “I went through a real-life curtain reveal. Until then, I’d spent a lot of time saying to people, ‘I don’t think he’s an awful person.’ And I don’t necessarily think he is an awful person, but … ” He puts his tattooed hands to his face and gives it a rub. “I’ve seen documents where it’s quite clear he was in a lot of [trouble]. His monthly interest payments on loans he’d taken out were $150,000. I don’t know how he got so stuck into all these nefarious deals.

“The thing is, the numbers aren’t real for those at the top of that world, it’s a feckless level of wealth. The numbers aren’t the same as if we were to experience them. Literally, I don’t think they do the maths. Inigo might have realised that early on. The money is not real and you’re selling something that has no intrinsic value.”

But the money was real to Fine Art Partners (FAP), a Berlin-based finance company run by Daniel Tümpel, an ex-banker, and Loretta Würtenberger, a collector. They became suspicious over a deal they’d done with Philbrick on a Stingel. He had told them Christie’s had “guaranteed” the painting for $9m and sent documents to that effect. But when the painting sold for $5.5m, Tumpel discovered the documents had been “falsified”.

By November, FAP had filed two lawsuits against Philbrick in Miami (where he had his own gallery, opened with seed money from Jopling). But he was already on the run, stopping in Japan, Australia and New Caledonia, before setting up home in Vanuatu.

* * *

Whitfield finishes his beer and considers the question: how does he feel, looking back on that life? “I’m not proud of the lies I told as an art dealer, but I think the immoral ambient temperature of that world made it feel perhaps more acceptable, more normalised. When one is being habitually lied to, it becomes easier and at times a survival mechanism – or it did for me.”

Does he think regulation will be introduced as a result of the scandal? He gives me a look, like: don’t be so naive. “In whose interest is it?” He shrugs. “If you are rich, you can do whatever you want. Who is going to change that?” But TV has power, he concedes. Mr Bates changed the way the country saw the Post Office scandal, after all. And his book has been optioned, “by Bad Wolf – Jane Tranter’s company. She was a producer on Succession.”

Like a lot of Philbrick’s friend-victims, all of whom felt they were his confidants, Whitfield is no longer sure what is real and what is not. While he’s often waspish in his observations of people, he folds into woeful self-abasement at the thought of how thoroughly he was duped. Like Jopling, he feels “hurt and betrayed”.

Not long after we meet, news breaks that Philbrick has been released from jail in Pennsylvania into home confinement in Rhode Island where he will serve two years of supervised release. In March, Vanity Fair published The Confessions of Inigo Philbrick, based on emails he sent a journalist from jail. Their correspondence seems to have taken up where Whitfield’s left off. Philbrick told that journalist he had written a TV treatment with Baker-Harber. Schacter, too, is writing his version, and BBC Arts has made a documentary entitled The Real Story of Inigo Philbrick: A Tale of Fortune, Fame and Fraud, due to air later this year.

Philbrick is still trying to spin himself free of responsibility. “I’m 36, still a young man, and a second act is going to require my having been upfront and sincere, but also not a martyr,” he told Vanity Fair. He claimed he would be vindicated and that he planned a return to art dealing. “Of course, I did things the wrong way. But creatively and with the best of intentions. I’ll have to tick the box for the felony. But I believe the art world is sophisticated enough to understand I wasn’t Bernie Madoff (who never made an actual investment).”

At first, Whitfield is sanguine about the prospect of Philbrick getting another chance, saying merely, “I wish him well in his second act.” But once he’s reflected on the implications, I see a flash of rage in him at the way Philbrick continues to find an audience, and at those in the media who collude. It’s the battle he’s been fighting for years: the whole point of the book. “If Inigo were a violent criminal, we wouldn’t even be countenancing this,” he says. “But the ethical soul of this country is so shattered that Inigo and his ilk are seen as merely naughty, rather than people who have ruined lives.”

• Orlando Whitfield’s All That Glitters: A Story of Friendship, Fraud and Fine Art is published on 2 May by Profile Books at £20. To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.