How an Art Advisor to the Elite Allegedly Conned Her Client Friends

Adam Sheffer wanted his money.

It was May 8, 2023, and Sheffer, a veteran art dealer and former executive at Pace Gallery and Lisson Gallery, stood face to face with Lisa Schiff, an art advisor and founder of SFA Advisory, who over the past two decades has acted as an art market fortune teller for the rich, famous, and powerful. Schiff could seemingly do it all: unearth the next hot painter, find highly coveted classics, negotiate sales at breakneck speed, and defy conventional wisdom by acting as a genuine mentor rather than a stuffy art snob.

Sheffer had been a client and close friend of Schiff’s for years. She was a conduit through which he bought and sold fine art. Sheffer’s most recent sale was an Adrian Ghenie painting. It was jointly owned with his husband, real estate developer Richard Grossman, and the real estate heiress Candace Barasch—who also happened to be one of Schiff’s best friends.

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Schiff offloaded the painting for $2.5 million in late 2022 through Sotheby’s Hong Kong, and she transferred to Sheffer and Barasch $225,000 each from the sale back in January. But she still owed them $1.8 million. Sheffer asked Schiff when he and Barasch would get their money.

Schiff had built a brand so steadfast, so unimpeachable, and she had counted so many of the art world’s elite as friends and confidants—including Leonardo DiCaprio, her most high-profile client—that Sheffer was shocked when Schiff told him that she didn’t have the money and that he should call her lawyer.

“You have to draw a line between being friendly with your clients and being friends with them.”

These allegations form the basis of a lawsuit by Grossman and Barasch against Schiff and her advising companies filed in the spring. One month later Barasch and her husband filed a second lawsuit against Schiff and her companies relating to other artwork dealings. According to the allegations in these lawsuits, when Schiff told Sheffer she didn’t have the money, she just turned around and walked away.

For Sheffer and Barasch, they were given a valuable lesson: Never mix friendship with business.

By all outward appearances, Lisa Schiff was a cornerstone of the art ecosystem. She had been lauded as a highly successful entrepreneur who carved out a coveted career consulting for wealthy individuals who wanted to amass valuable collections, or at least park some of their money in art. She wasn’t merely a dealer or a gallerist or a broker but an amorphous oracle, someone whose taste and expertise granted her access to moneyed circles in New York, Los Angeles, and London.

In the fine art world, where social posturing and business jockeying are part and parcel of success, Schiff seemed to have accomplished the ultimate coup, elbowing her way into a market that was drowning in money. The Financial Times once said that Schiff was “disrupting the art advisory business.” Schiff herself put it this way to CNN Style: “I’m always flying by the seat of my pants.”

lisa schiff the sfa advisory team celebrate the 3rd curatorial selection by neville wakefield, featuring works by tavares strachan

Candace Barasch and Lisa Schiff in happier times, at Schiff’s Tribeca office/exhibition space in September 2019.

Sylvain Gaboury//Getty Images

It had been a meteoric rise for Schiff. She wasn’t a nepo baby from Manhattan art royalty; she grew up in Florida and majored in art history at the University of Michigan. She studied for a time in France, received her master’s in art history at the University of Miami, and pursued a PhD at the City University of New York (she never finished her dissertation).

While in New York, Schiff worked at the auction house Phillips (“It was a shitshow,” she told Artsy) and later became the director of Edward Tyler Nahem Fine Art, where, Schiff once said, she learned “the art of the deal.” She also held teaching positions at Hunter College, the College of Staten Island, and Nassau Community College. The world of academia, however, was not very lucrative, and in 1999, after Schiff turned 30 and her parents stopped subsidizing her big city lifestyle, she had to find a new way to make a living.

In 2002 she hung up a shingle, launching SFA Advisory. “It was kind of ballsy. I had no idea what I was doing,” she told Artsy. “I just couldn’t function in the system. I was always feisty and frustrated.” Schiff promoted her gritty, built-from-the-ground-up personal brand and, helped by her nerdy love of art history and penchant for luxury, quickly found herself gathering clients and fitting in among Manhattan’s one-percenters and power brokers.

When Schiff founded her consulting firm, few fine art advisors existed. According to the Association for Professional Art Advisors (APAA), in 2000 there were only 60 enrolled members. Over the past two decades, however, the practice has expanded dramatically; the APAA now has 156 members, and untold more have staked their claim in this largely unregulated corner of the industry. “There are many practitioners who adopt the title of ‘art advisor’ without the schooling, experience, and integrity to properly facilitate the collecting ambitions of their clients,” says APAA president Alex Glauber. “APAA membership standards are designed to counter the realities of a field with no barriers to entry. Collectively, these standards aim to define advisory best practices within an amorphous field often impugned by those unqualified at best and deceitful at worst.”

Schiff, for her part, has never been a member of the APAA, and she admitted in 2012, in a live discussion with Jane Morris of the Art Newspaper at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London, that “the art world is the easiest place to do shifty business on every level, shape, or form. You can scheme…you can lie, you can double-dip.” She added that “it takes a long time to figure out that you’re talking to someone who is a bit of a shyster. There’s a lot of shysters around.” At Art Basel years later, Schiff said of her relationship with clients, “I don’t own them. It’s not my money. I’m just a sounding board.”

Nonetheless, Schiff hoped to be a guiding light for would-be collectors and eager aficionados by “getting in the head of my clients, helping them find the best of what they love,” she told CNN Style, adding cryptically that “some of the machinations behind the scenes are so disgusting.” Above all, she said, she wanted to protect her clients, and on LinkedIn she wrote that her company had “been able to cultivate critical trust on all sides, ensuring access to the most desirable and highest-quality works.”

lisa schiff the sfa advisory team celebrate the 3rd curatorial selection by neville wakefield, featuring works by tavares strachan

“She obviously had a lot of money,” says Gennaro Brooks-Church, an artist who designed and built a $36,000 plant installation for Schiff’s exhibition space.

Sylvain Gaboury//Getty Images

In a profession where proximity to money means everything, Schiff landed her most formidable and enduring client in 2004: the multi­millionaire real estate heiress Candace Barasch, whom everyone, including Schiff, calls Candy. As stated in Barasch’s legal complaints, they met through Adam Sheffer, who was then the sales director at the Cheim & Read gallery and who had recently become Schiff’s client. Barasch had been dipping her toe into the high-end art market since 2000, focusing primarily on photography, but she soon graduated into all manner of modern and contemporary art, which gave her and Schiff a shared passion.

They quickly became best friends. “Almost immediately after I met Schiff, she began cultivating a personal friendship with me that transcended our business relationship,” Barasch said in court documents, “to the point that my family and I considered Schiff like a member of our family.” Schiff shared the same deep-seated connection with Sheffer and Grossman, who in 2013 attended the bris of Schiff’s son and acted as “adjunct parents” to him, even attending Father’s Day events at his school. They also went on trips together. In a post on Schiff’s now-deleted Instagram account, she featured a photo of Sheffer walking with her son on the beach in St. Barts with the caption, “We love you Uncle Adam.”

By 2012 Schiff claimed to have a dozen clients and was presumably making a lot of money advising them. And as the years went on, she and Barasch seemed to be virtually joined at the hip, with Schiff babysitting Barasch’s pet and “removing and storing personal correspondences for her,” Schiff wrote in a court filing. This may have muddied Schiff’s perception of her professional obligations to her client. “You have to draw a line between being friendly with your clients and being friends with your clients,” says Todd Levin, who spent 12 years on the APAA board of directors and has 40 years of experience as an advisor. “Becoming friends makes things more complicated.”

As alleged in her legal complaints, Barasch trusted Schiff so much that she allowed her to be the exclusive custodian of her art inventory and transaction records, and even gave her access to her credit cards for expenses. Every dollar that Barasch spent on art passed through Schiff’s bank accounts. They spoke on the phone every day and, over time, became more like sisters than friends. “I think it’s important to find advisors who aren’t clinging to their clients in a way that they own them,” Schiff once said.

In 2014 Schiff wrangled her most high-profile client: Leo­nardo DiCaprio, as well as his fledgling namesake nonprofit. This raised Schiff’s status in the industry immensely—and gave her a heightened sense of importance. According to a source with knowledge of the incident, Schiff once attended a show on behalf of ­DiCaprio at the Gagosian Gallery in Beverly Hills. When she was told that she was not first in line for a specific piece, she became irate. ­DiCaprio allegedly gave Schiff Larry Gagosian’s cell phone number to try to work out a deal. Schiff called Gagosian at 7 a.m. and made her displeasure extremely clear. After the call Gagosian asked one of his employees, “Who the fuck is Lisa Schiff?” (It’s unclear whether the sale ever transpired.)

After the call Larry Gagosian asked one of his employees, “Who the fuck is Lisa Schiff?”

Nonetheless, Schiff curated DiCaprio’s annual art auction galas in St.-Tropez and Sonoma County; they featured works by Pablo Picasso, Jeff Koons, Ai Weiwei, David Hockney, and Damien Hirst. Schiff’s relationship with DiCaprio, however, was short-lived. They parted ways in 2018, for undisclosed reasons. “I loved working with Leo,” Schiff told CNN Style. “I miss Leo.” (Her son is named Leonardo.)

Schiff’s proximity to the über-wealthy appeared to have elevated her taste for luxury, a shift that Barasch saw firsthand as her friendship with Schiff deepened. According to detailed allegations in Barasch’s lawsuits, Barasch and Schiff frequently traveled together to art-related events, and Schiff would spend lavishly: $32,400 at Loewe in Paris, $20,000 worth of jewelry, international first class travel with concierge and limousine services, and accommodations at five-star hotels. Her expenses were also piling up at home: $25,000 in monthly rent for her Manhattan apartment, a luxury unit in the Colonial House apartment complex in West Hollywood (where Bette Davis once lived), and her son’s private school tuition. While speaking on a panel at Art Basel in 2019, Schiff said, “I’m pretty much broke.”

Despite this admission, nothing seemed amiss to those who knew Schiff best. In fact, she was working harder than ever. She traveled to China, Brazil, and India to find art for her swelling list of clients. This included Barasch, who alleged in her lawsuits that she paid Schiff a 10 percent commission on all transactions and had presumably become Schiff’s most prolific source of income. As reported in the New York Times, by 2019 she had helped Barasch amass a collection of roughly 600 pieces, likely worth tens of millions of dollars. (According to Schiff’s court filings, she also helped Barasch secure more than $10 million in profit by selling pieces from her collection.) They rotated pieces in and out of Barasch’s Park Avenue apartment once per year, according to the culture’s current theme. “It’s a shared vision,” Barasch told the Times. “Hopefully, we’ll put this story together so down the line there’s a coherent idea about where we are as a society.”

In 2018 Schiff plotted her next move: a luxury ground floor commercial outpost on White Street in Tribeca that acted as her office, an exhibition space where she could sell pieces on consignment, and a swanky artist hangout. She signed a 10-year lease and enlisted famed interior designer Rodman Primack to reimagine it. The slightly wonky open-concept space was transformed over the next year into a frenetic menagerie of colors and textures and bric-a-brac, a fireworks display of maximalism that seemed to reflect Schiff’s personality and outlook on life. “She obviously had a lot of money,” says Gennaro Brooks-Church, an artist who designed and built a $36,000 plant installation for the space. Brooks-Church says that he and Schiff had a falling out after Schiff refused to pay his fee for ongoing upkeep of the organic statement piece. “Looking back, I think she was very naive. The feeling I got was, Yeah, we’ll spend all this money on this space, and then it will all work out. But there was no real plan that I knew of.”

“The feeling I got was, ‘We’ll spend all this money on this space, and then it will all work out.’”

Schiff also opened an office in London, which raised some eyebrows within the industry. “I knew who some of her clients were, and I had some idea of what they were buying, and the math didn’t add up,” Todd Levin says. “I didn’t know where all the money was coming from.”

After Schiff unveiled her Tribeca space, in 2019, she told Architectural Digest that everything inside was purchasable, a sort of hyper­expensive, bohemian garage sale. “The Richard Princes, the rug—if people wanted to come and buy any of it, I would be okay with that,” she told the magazine. It was a befuddling expansion for someone who largely operated in the shadows of the art market (why have a public-facing space if she dealt only with private clients?), but as a publicity stunt, it worked: Schiff’s business seemed to be booming. Later that year she celebrated her 50th birthday with a party during Art Basel in Miami. Swizz Beatz and Rosario Dawson attended.

They next year, however, wasn’t so sunny. As alleged in Barasch’s lawsuits, Schiff told her that in January 2020 she checked herself into a drug and alcohol rehabilitation program in San Francisco that allegedly cost $100,000, “for her addiction to chardonnay.”

When the pandemic hit, she went back to New York and laid off some of her staff (she admitted to Artsy that she “sucks” at being a manager), and saw the art market change from the rarefied world of gatekeepers in which she had established her prowess to a speculative free-for-all dominated by NFTs. She continued to focus on breaking through the noise and elevating her brand. A media blitz followed, with a lengthy profile on Artsy claiming that Schiff wanted to “fix the art market” and another piece in Cultured that covered an exhibition hosted in her Tribeca storefront. The Cultured reporter pointed out the apparent conflict of interest of an advisor moonlighting as a gallerist and a dealer and asked her why she was hosting a for-profit show. “That’s a bit more complicated,” Schiff said, without explaining further.

Despite her financial turmoil, Schiff appeared to be living her life as if nothing were wrong.

In hindsight one could see the professional moves Schiff made over the past half decade as a desperate bid to generate more income. Truthfully, all was not well behind the scenes. Her business was floundering, and according to Barasch’s lawsuits she had allegedly begun to misappropriate customer funds to prop up her lavish lifestyle and settle outstanding debts to clients, galleries, and dealers. The two lawsuits that Barasch filed against Schiff and her companies earlier this year include detailed allegations suggesting that, by 2022, Schiff’s financial difficulties were coming to a head. For example, they allege that in the summer of 2022 David Kordansky of the Kordansky Gallery called Barasch about an outstanding payment—despite Barasch’s having already paid Schiff for the artwork in full. Schiff dismissed the snafu as an innocent oversight caused by her busy schedule. Their friendship stayed intact. (Kordansky did not respond to requests for comment.)

Despite her financial turmoil, Schiff appeared to be living her life as if nothing were wrong. Throughout 2021 and ’22 she documented on social media luxurious vacations to Mexico, the Caribbean, Rhode Island, and Italy, and she also bounced around the Hamptons, Denver, and Miami. She even went to Paris and London with Barasch to look at, and presumably purchase, art. But the foundation under Schiff continued to crumble, and as the walls closed in she became more desperate to broker sales and buy time.

Barasch’s lawsuits allege that although Schiff had been paid in full by Sotheby’s for the sale of the Adrian Ghenie painting in January 2023, Schiff told Barasch, Sheffer, and Grossman that the buyer needed more time to come up with the full amount of the sale. On April 10 Schiff texted Sheffer, “Just checked in on [G]henie payment!… What else can we work on?”

The lawsuits further allege that two weeks later Schiff again tried to delay, texting Sheffer: “Ok so…they are trying but can’t guarantee. Buyer is also trying. No one is worried. So trying for 2 weeks but could be 1 month and no longer—guaranteed.” Schiff continued to encourage Sheffer to buy artwork and pressured Barasch for payments on pieces that she had earmarked for purchase. On May 4, Barasch wired Schiff $190,531.

On May 8 Sheffer confronted Schiff in person about the payment still owed to him, Grossman, and Barasch. Schiff finally admitted that the money was gone. After their meeting Schiff texted him, “I am sorry and have every intention to make things right. It’s just complicated. I know you will never speak to me again but I will try to make it right regardless.” Schiff, likely knowing that Barasch had gotten word, texted her the same day, saying, “Know that I love you. Not able to talk but later today…”

Barasch asked where her latest payments—more than $300,000—had gone. “I don’t know,” Schiff said.

When they got on the phone, Schiff allegedly explained that over the past few years she had dug herself a vast financial hole and had debated filing for bankruptcy before the pandemic but decided against it for fear of criminal exposure. She also claimed that she had used her time in rehab to map out a plan to fix the mess that she had created for them both. Barasch says she was shocked, dismayed, and heartbroken. She asked the woman she considered a member of her family where her most recent payments—more than $300,000—had gone. “I don’t know,” Schiff responded. Barasch pressed further. How much of the art that she had supposedly purchased through Schiff hadn’t actually been paid for, and how long had this been going on? To the former, Schiff couldn’t give a concrete answer. To the latter: more than three years.

After Schiff’s alleged admission that she had essentially lost vast sums of her best friend’s money, Barasch says she dove into a frenzied game of telephone, contacting many of the galleries from whom she had instructed Schiff to purchase art since 2020. The results were not good: She found at least 16 pieces for which she alleges she gave the money to Schiff but the sellers of which had not been paid. The damage stung like a fastball hitting a catcher’s mitt: $1.5 million.

Barasch tallied up the total she had transferred to Schiff for artworks just over the past 18 months: $6.6 million. Barasch feared that most if not all of that money was likely gone, with no art to show for it. She was forced to take a drastic step: sue her former best friend in New York Supreme Court. In May 2023 Barasch filed her first lawsuit, along with Grossman, alleging that Schiff and her companies had failed to pay them for the sale of the Ghenie painting. A month later Barasch filed a second lawsuit, this time with her husband and the family trust, claiming that Schiff had mismanaged other art transactions. “Schiff and her businesses have effectively been running a Ponzi scheme,” the first lawsuit claimed.

After talking to Barasch, Schiff emailed her other clients and told them that she had “fallen on incredibly hard financial times” and was currently “indebted to you and others and am simply unable to meet my obligations.” Everything going on was “very complicated from a legal perspective,” she said. She wouldn’t be answering any questions. They too would have to go through her attorney. In papers filed with the court, Schiff denied running a Ponzi scheme but admitted that a number of her clients are “owed money because expenses and flawed payment practices left the Company with more payment obligations than funds.”

lisa schiff the sfa advisory team celebrate the 3rd curatorial selection by neville wakefield, featuring works by tavares strachan

In papers filed with the court, Schiff denied running a Ponzi scheme but admitted that a number of her clients are “owed money because expenses and flawed payment practices left the Company.”

Sylvain Gaboury//Getty Images

Schiff tried to cut a couple more deals to make some quick cash but, according to Barasch’s suit, eventually settled on trying to sell thousands of dollars’ worth of jewelry that she had purchased. Despite her best efforts, Schiff couldn’t hold it together. In May she shuttered SFA Advisory, liquidated its assets, and admitted in court records that she can afford neither the rent on her Manhattan apartment nor legal representation. (She planned on moving “elsewhere” once her son finished the school year.) Her attorney admitted in court filings that both federal and state law enforcement are investigating her financial dealings, and she is cooperating with the investigation.

In August, dozens of additional claims from creditors—totaling millions of dollars—were filed against Schiff as part of her bankruptcy proceeding. Filings in that proceeding suggest that $3.9 million worth of art is still in Schiff’s possession, and $1.1 million worth of art is alleged to be missing. Both Barasch and Schiff declined via their attorneys to comment for this article.

It was a stunning fall from grace for a once revered pillar of the art world, made so much more tragic by the fact that Schiff leveraged the trust placed in her by her best friend to raise her profile and amass (and eventually squander) a small fortune. In a 2012 panel discussion in London, an attendee posed a question to Schiff regarding the Wild West quality of the art market and the dubious practices of some people angling to make large sums in it. “I find it very dangerous, actually. I don’t really see a good outcome for that kind of behavior,” Schiff said with unfortunate prescience. “What is that, Icarus flying too close to the sun? You’re just going to fall… I don’t think in the long run it will sustain itself.”

This story appears in the October 2023 issue of Town & Country. SUBSCRIBE NOW

Lettermark

Ian Frisch is a journalist and documentary producer who lives in Brooklyn; his first book is Magic is Dead: My Journey Into the World’s Most Secretive Society of Magicians.  

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