An art dealer who stole more than £1 million spent the money on maintaining a “lavish” lifestyle for her and her husband – including hiring a private jet, a court has heard.
German socialite Angela Gulbenkian, 39, appeared in Southwark Crown Court on Wednesday (July 28). She pleaded guilty earlier this month to two counts of theft totalling £1,111,484.
Gulbenkian has admitted to fraudulently selling an 81kg (179lb) spotted yellow pumpkin by the Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama.
She also admitted to stealing £50,000 from Jacqui Ball, a friend she promised to help invest in art.
During the hearing, Gulbenkian appeared wearing a pink and black coat jacket and spoke only to confirm her name.
She has been remanded in HMS Bronzefield, a women’s prison, since December 2020 after her arrest in Lisbon under an international arrest warrant following her failure to appear at a hearing in February.
Prosecutor Mr David Markham said Gulbenkian, who is from Munich and is married to the sports agent Duarte Gulbenkian – a member of a prominent arts family – used her name to convince her victims that she was a high-value arts broker and to “part with their money”.
“The money she was entrusted with she spent dishonestly on herself and her own family,” Mr Markham said.
Gulbenkian’s defence counsel Mr David Groome, however, claimed his client initially had “honest intentions”.
He explained how around the time of the first theft Gulbenkian’s husband ceased working for his family’s business creating an “unimaginable rift” between him and his father.
The couple went from having a “lavish” lifestyle to having their home, which was owned by her father-in-law’s gas and oil company, sold from under their feet, Mr Groome said.
Mr Groome added: “Overnight Ms Gulbenkian became the family’s only source of income.
“When she first became involved in the deal with the pumpkin she had honest intentions but when she received the money into her account the temptation was just too great and they began using the funds to pay for the kind of lifestyle that they enjoyed.”
Gulbenkian is said to have been introduced to a Hong Kong-based arts company Art Incorporated Limited (AIL) in later 2016 and claimed she was able to procure them a sculpture by Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama, entitled Yellow Pumpkin, whose owner is unknown.
In May 2017, after the sale had been agreed, AIL transferred 1.275 million dollars to Gulbenkian’s personal bank account. However, the artwork was never delivered.
Her bank account statements shows she instead spent the money on luxury items including a “Rolex watch worth £25,000, two pieces of art worth a total of £56,000” and the “hiring of a private charter jet”.
“She also spent £218,000 on shopping, and £121,000 on travel,” prosecutor Mr Markham said.
Meanwhile Gulbenkian told the directors of AIL a “series of false excuses” to allay their suspicions including that the owner of the pumpkin, who she claimed was Wolfgang Porsche – of the car dynasty – would not release it.
At a high court case in June 2018, during which Gulbenkian’s assets were frozen, she produced an email she claimed was from the real owner of the pumpkin Martin Winterkorn, the former CEO of Volkswagen. Mr Winterkorn denied knowing the defendant or owning the pumpkin, and the email was found by the court to be a forgery.
Gulbenkian befriended Ms Ball, the second victim in the case, after meeting her at a gym in Battersea, south London, where the victim was working as a personal trainer and sports massage therapist.
Ms Ball told Gulbenkian about her aspirations to buy a house and a car and the defendant offered to help her by investing her savings in art, assuring her it would be safe.
The investment of £50,000 was made in January 2018, with Ms Ball depositing the money in Gulbenkian’s account.
Over the next ten months, Gulbenkian assured Ms Ball her investment was doing well and that her investment looked likely to double.
However, when in October that year she requested to withdraw a portion of the money Gulbenkian failed to send it.
Bank statements from that period show Gulbenkian had not invested the money which was spent within a year on travel, dining, shopping and art.
The matter was reported to police in late October 2018. In April 2021, Gulbenkian repaid Ms Ball the money through her solicitor.
One of the owners of AIL, art adviser Mathieu Ticolat, gave evidence via video link from his home in Hong Kong telling the court he had been through “hell”.
Mr Ticolat said: “You have to understand I was dealing with a literal sociopath, but I didn’t know. She was constantly making lies, fabricating emails, trying to make me believe something that didn’t exist, when it was a pile of lies.
“This industry is based on trust and I believed her because she said she was part of the Gulbenkian family. I was deceived.
“I’m not a billionaire, I’m an arts adviser and I’m still trying to recover.”
Mr Ticolat revealed he had been attempting to purchase the pumpkin on behalf of the Chirathivat family, the fourth wealthiest family in Thailand with an estimated wealth of £12.4 billion.
Ms Ball, who was present at the hearing, said in her victim statement which was read out to the court that she “battles daily” following the crime.
She said the experience had been “devastating” and had affected her physical and mental health, and had meant she was no longer able to buy a home or car and remains living with her parents.
“I’m left with a general distrust of people which has affected all my relationships,” Ms Ball said.