Paint brushes sit on a workbench in Gruenhainichen, Germany. (Photographer: Krisztian Bocsi/Bloomberg)

She Married Into a European Dynasty. Now She’s Accused of Art World Fraud

(Bloomberg) -- It is, to many, a byword for culture and opulence: Gulbenkian.

Six decades after his death, Calouste Gulbenkian, a lion of the early oil age, lives on through the $3.6 billion private foundation and sumptuous fine arts museum that bear his name.

She Married Into a European Dynasty. Now She’s Accused of Art World Fraud

So it’s fitting that Angela Gulbenkian, married to Calouste’s great-grandnephew, enmeshed herself in Europe’s big-money world of art. One moment she was posing for photos with the artist Ai Weiwei. The next she was brokering million-dollar art deals.

Only now, some have begun to wonder: Is Angela Gulbenkian everything she seemed?

One art adviser has accused her of fraud. In a civil suit, he says his firm paid Gulbenkian almost $1.4 million for a Yayoi Kusama sculpture that never materialized. Documents in the suit, as well as interviews with people familiar with Gulbenkian, indicate that many came to believe that she was affiliated with the two prominent Portuguese institutions with the Calouste Gulbenkian name. That isn’t the case.

And then this: Gulbenkian, in a recent affidavit, said she has a minimal amount of money in the bank.

The story spans from London to Munich to Hong Kong to Lisbon, home to the Gulbenkian foundation and museum. While the tale is still unfolding, it has already exposed a sobering truth about the $64 billion global art market: many people have no idea who they’re working with, or at least the person’s connections.

Buyers and sellers are often linked via chains of go-betweens that stretch across the world. Many intermediaries can get their hands on information about art -- but not necessarily the works themselves -- and offer it to hundreds of people. So-called runners represent neither buyers nor sellers; they simply try to pull together whatever deals they can, in hopes of collecting fees. In the age of Instagram, anyone can embellish an online persona.

“People are buying expensive art and are not doing due diligence on people they are buying the art from,’’ said Christopher Marinello, chief executive officer of Art Recovery International, a firm that specializes in art-recovery cases and is working with the plaintiff in the civil suit.

Gulbenkian, 36, didn’t respond to questions submitted through her lawyer before publication. After publication, she told Bloomberg that she was surprised by the lawsuit and had offered to arrange for the seller to deliver the Kusama sculpture to the buyer before proceedings were brought. Marinello disputes this.

Foundation, Museum

Lisbon’s Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation is a benefactor of education, science and the arts, while the Calouste Gulbenkian Museum is home to much of the tycoon’s renowned art collection. So it’s not surprising that the Gulbenkian name would imply connections.

She Married Into a European Dynasty. Now She’s Accused of Art World Fraud

Angela Gulbenkian, who has said she was an art collector before her marriage, apparently did little to dispel this notion. At one point, an assistant of hers used an @gulbenkian.foundation email address, according to Marinello. On Instagram, where she has about 2,000 followers, she identifies herself as a collector with the Gulbenkian Art Collection. Her handle is @Pantaraxia, the name of an autobiography by Calouste Gulbenkian’s son, Nubar. Until this week, the profile photo depicted a woman in sunglasses and a straw hat, holding a small white dog.

“Angela Gulbenkian is a very respected art collector,” said Astrid-Caroline Cole, a private art dealer in London. She says she sold several works to Gulbenkian. “She has a museum and foundation in Portugal,” Cole said. “Google the Gulbenkian museums!"

But the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, which oversees the museum, says there’s no connection.

“Angela Gulbenkian does not have any relation whatsoever with the foundation and, as far as we know, is married to a Gulbenkian family member who is not a direct descendant of our founder," said Elisabete Caramelo, a spokeswoman.

Told of the foundation’s response, Cole said, “I had a very positive working experience with her and cannot comment on anything different. I admit that the market is very opaque and I only have a fraction of total truth or information.”

She Married Into a European Dynasty. Now She’s Accused of Art World Fraud

Art Network

The former Angela Maria Ischwang grew up in Munich, where her mother runs an optometry business. She moved to London in the early 2000s and later married Duarte Gulbenkian, a soccer agent. He didn’t respond to phone messages.

After working in marketing and public relations, Angela Gulbenkian set up FAPS-Net, a private company registered in London, with art adviser Florentine Rosemeyer in 2016, according to a regulatory filing. The women were equal partners until earlier this year, when Rosemeyer left; she now operates Rosemeyer Art Advisors, registered in the suburbs of Munich.

Rosemeyer said in a statement that she put Gulbenkian in touch with contacts about the Kusama sale, had no other involvement with the deal and is “shocked” about the allegations.

Rosemeyer’s website promoted Gulbenkian’s marketing expertise, according to a screen shot provided by Marinello. “Due to her unique network and the prominence of the Calouste Gulbenkian foundation in Lisbon, London and Paris, she today brokers high end art works," the website showed as recently as May. The description has since been removed.

The Gulbenkian foundation was actually established to be independent from the family, though its bylaws state that the board would preferably have one direct descendant of Calouste Gulbenkian. He was a major investor in oil interests with Royal Dutch Shell, and held a 5 percent stake in the Iraq Petroleum Co. “Mr. Five Percent,” as he was known, eventually built up one of the world’s greatest private art collections. Today, his great-grandson, Martin Essayan, sits on the foundation’s board.

Angela Gulbenkian often told clients that she bought art for the foundation and attended its board meetings, according to interviews with dealers, collectors and advisers. In a 2017 interview with the Portuguese business-news website Jornal de Negocios, Gulbenkian ruled out the scenario of having any job or interference in the daily management in the foundation. She did envision one of Kusama’s signature pumpkin sculptures in the foundation’s gardens. “It would be breathtaking,’’ she said.

‘Fooled by the Name’

It’s a 179-pound, yellow polka-dotted Kusama pumpkin that sits at the center of the London case.

She Married Into a European Dynasty. Now She’s Accused of Art World Fraud

Mathieu Ticolat, an art adviser based in Hong Kong, claims his firm paid Gulbenkian $1.375 million for the pumpkin, according to papers filed in the High Court in London. Gulbenkian said she represented the anonymous seller. Two money transfers, in April and May of 2017, were made to Gulbenkian’s account at HSBC in London, according to court papers.

Ticolat’s firm says the pumpkin never arrived. After months of pleading and threatening, he filed the civil suit, which included a motion to freeze Gulbenkian’s assets that the judge granted.

“I got fooled by the name,” Ticolat said by phone from Hong Kong.

The sculpture was sold to someone else in late 2017, but Gulbenkian continued to indicate she was trying to get the work to Ticolat, according to the lawsuit.

After publication of this story, Gulbenkian said through her lawyers that she offered to get the pumpkin to Ticolat before the lawsuit was filed and had proposed a settlement. She said she had spoken to the owner, who was willing to transfer the work to Ticolat, but that he didn’t want a deal. Marinello said that those claims are untrue and that Gulbenkian was misrepresenting her ability to deliver the pumpkin given that it was sold to someone else last year.

In the London High Court this month, where she has not yet filed a defense, Gulbenkian produced an email that she said was from the work’s owner: Martin Winterkorn. A separate WhatsApp message viewed by Bloomberg suggests she was referring to the one-time head of Volkswagen. Winterkorn’s lawyer said in an email to Bloomberg that was never the case; the former CEO never owned the sculpture and doesn’t even know Gulbenkian. Gulbenkian disputes this.

As for the money, Gulbenkian says she had transferred the payment from Ticolat’s firm to the seller and a party representing the seller, and is arranging for those to be repaid now that the deal is off. Marinello said he has seen no evidence of an attempted repayment.

However this plays out, it shows just how tricky it’s getting to navigate the murky world of art deals, according to Todd Levin, an art adviser in New York who isn’t tied to the Kusama sale and doesn’t know Gulbenkian.

“When the art market gets really frothy,’’ he said, “all sorts of strange characters come out of the woodwork.”

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.