Did Leo DiCaprio’s Former Art Advisor Exploit the Star’s Name?

Before art advisor Lisa Schiff made headlines for allegations of fraud and conspiracy, she was largely known for having counted Leonardo DiCaprio among her former clients. Today, DiCaprio works with art advisor Ralph DeLuca.

But despite Schiff and DiCaprio’s working relationship ending more than five years ago, some say she continued to use her former connection with the actor liberally in order to boost her career.

The New York-based consultant, who is currently facing lawsuits accusing her of misappropriating payments, rose to prominence as the founder of  SFA Advisory and the advisor behind collections for a star-studded clientele. She helped DiCaprio, who is an avid art collector, pick up works by artists like Jean-Michel Basquiat and Jean-Pierre Roy, in addition to organizing auctions for his eponymous foundation.

Artist Kenny Schachter first reported that Schiff and DiCaprio were no longer working together in a 2017 opinion piece for Artnet News. In a recent column, Schacter said Schiff had threatened legal action against him at the time for revealing the news.

DiCaprio has since worked with DeLuca, who has known the actor since 2001.

“What I do is very much a collaboration, therefore I’m as particular about who I work with as I am about the art that I buy,” DeLuca, who runs a boutique art advisory firm, told Observer via email. In addition to DiCaprio, he also works with stars like Sylvester Stallone.

Leonardo DiCaprio stands with three people, with his back turned in gallery

Sources also said Schiff would purchase works in the name of the star to flip herself, according to Schachter’s Artnet News column.

“It was problematic that she continued, after the working relationship was over, to continue using his name,” Todd Levin, an art advisor and director of Levin Art Group, told Observer. “She still claimed to be representing him as his advisor, even when she no longer was.”

He also noted that Schiff at times didn’t clarify to the press that she no longer worked with DiCaprio or his foundation when referred to as his advisor in recent years. “Obviously, it’s a high-profile name,” said Levin. “I understand why she was doing it, though it’s a very unwise thing to do.”

Was Schiff running a Ponzi scheme?

Schiff’s SFA Advisory office and showroom in New York have since shut their doors, as has her outpost in London, after the advisor was hit with two lawsuits this month from clients.

On May 11, real estate heiress Candace Carmel Barasch and lawyer Richard Grossman accused the prominent advisor of “effectively running a Ponzi scheme,” according to a complaint filed in New York Supreme Court. They allege that Schiff still owes them $1.8 million for the sale proceeds of Adrian Ghenie’s The Uncle 3. Co-owned by Barasch, Grossman and Grossman’s spouse, the painting was sold by Schiff through Sotheby’s Hong Kong in Dec. 2022 for $2.5 million.

Two women with blonde hair posing next to eachother, one wearing rose tinted glasses

Barasch promptly filed a second lawsuit against Schiff, who has been her close friend and art advisor for two decades. After learning of the Ghenie case, a number of galleries contacted Barasch and alerted her to the fact that Schiff had failed to fulfill payments for works that Barasch sent her advisor funds to purchase, according to the May 17 complaint.

This pattern was allegedly observed across more than a dozen sales, including the sale of a Sarah Lucas sculpture at Manhattan’s Gladstone Gallery. Barasch claims the gallery received no payment for the work, despite her having sent Schiff $390,000 for the piece in March of 2020. Over the last 18 months, Barasch said she paid her advisor more than $6.6 million, much of which was never actually used for art purchases.

It appears Schiff’s behaviors may have extended beyond Barasch and Grossman. On May 9, she emailed at least seven clients, saying she has “fallen on incredibly hard financial times” and is “indebted to you and others and am simply unable to meet my obligations,” according to the complaint.

There’s no one right way to conduct art advisory, according to Levin, who is also a longtime board member of the Association of Professional Art Advisors (APAA). However, the organization has strict ethical guidelines for its members, such as prohibitions on selling from one’s own inventory to one’s clients or representing artists, in order to avoid conflicts of interest.

“If you’re not a member, in no way, shape or form is that impugning one’s reputation,” said Levin. “But in this particular case, we have someone who wasn’t a member appearing to have not worked in one client’s best fiduciary interests.”

Schiff did not respond to requests for comment from Observer.