In a magical twist of the political money game, Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) has found a way to let his contributors make a profit on donations to his campaign.
Under a fund-raising effort called "Artists for Kennedy," the underdog challenger is offering signed and numbered prints by three dozen prominent artists in return for campaign contributions.
Each work of art has been assigned a "suggested" contribution value, ranging from $225 for a silk screen by David Prentice to $1,500 for a "deluxe edition" of an Andy Warhol portrait of Kennedy.
In most cases, though, the market value of the art is greater than the contribution called for. Thus Kennedy contributors will receive not only the satisfaction of supporting the candidate of their choice -- and a federal tax credit for doing so -- but also an investment property worth more than they gave the candidate.
The campaign makes a healthy "profit" on each contribution-for-print transaction, because the artists have all donated their work for no fee. Kennedy's managers estimate that the program will bring in about $4 million from about 10,000 contributors.
Warhol has given Kennedy prints worth $300,000 -- 50 "deluxe" prints of his Kennedy portrait, valued at $1,500 each, and another 300 "standard" prints of the work worth $750 apiece. Jamie Wyeth donated an edition of 300 lithograph prints of a colorful campaign poster. Each print is appraised at $800, for a total value of $240,000.
This is legal, because the Federal Election Act has a provision that effectively exempts artists from the normal contribution limits.
Under the law, individuals are prohibited from giving more than $1,000 in cash, goods or services to any candidate. But the law assigns no value to the time, effort and talent an artist devotes to creating a print, only his materials count. Thus Warhol, Wyeth and the other "Artists for Kennedy" can stay well below the limit in the statute.
"As far as the law is concerned, an artist producing a print in his studio is just like somebody stuffing envelopes in headquarters," said Arthur Chotin, Kennedy's national finance director. "As a legal matter, they're both volunteers and a volunteer's time is not counted as a contribution."
Only the artist, however, can take advantage of the legal provision. If a third party, such as an art dealer, were to buy the artist's prints and give them to a campaign, the prints would then be considered legal "contributions" equal to their full market value. Thus the dealer could donate only $1,000 worth of art.
The artists' "volunteer" clause has been used occasionally in past campaigns, but the Kennedy drive this year has developed it into a major fund-raising program.
"Artists for Kennedy" began on a small scale last spring, with individual artists donating works to the campaign. For the most part, these works were used as "door prizes" to attract people to Kennedy fund-raising parties.
At one such affair, for example, 100 Kennedy backers put up $500 each for admission to a reception at the candidat's home. The door prize was an original Andrew Wyeth Watercolor, "Two Bush Light," with an appraised value greater than $30,000. The winner was a "syndicate" of three Capitol Hill secretaries who put up $170 each and got a huge return on their money.
But then Miles Rubin, a wealthy Kennedy backer with close ties to the artistic communities on both coasts, and William Oldaker, a former Federal Election Commission lawyer who works on Kennedy's campaign finance team, worked out a more systematic approach.
Through Rubin's contacts, 35 well-known American artists were asked to contribute originals to the Kennedy campaign. Prints, both silk screen and lithograph, were perfect for this purpose because in an "edition" of several hundred prints of the same picture, each print is considered an "original" in art investment markets.
The artists were recruited, for the most part, through a New York organization called Artists Rights Today, which lobbies for artists' interests in such areas as tax law.
Rubin Gorewitz, who heads the group, said he had no trouble finding artists to take part because most prominent artists tend to share Kennedy's liberal views, and because Kennedy has been an outspoken advocate of federal tax and other aid for artists.
Among the more prominent artists who have contributed original works to the Artists for Kennedy project are Robert Rauschenberg, Leon Polk Smith, Jack Youngerman, Ilya Bolotowsky and Lowell Nesbitt.
The artists' response to the Kennedy campaign's request was exemplified by Harry Koursaros, a 48-year-old New Yorker who produces paintings and prints in bright, intricate basketweave patterns.
"I got a call from Artists Rights Today sometime at the end of May," Koursaros recalled.
"And of course I was delighted, because, you know, I would stand on my head to get Kennedy elected. So what can I do to help? I can do art -- this is what I do. So I went right to work and in about a week had the maquette [the original design] ready for the printer."
Koursaros' work was produced in the New York studios of printer John Campione. The Kennedy campaign paid for the paper, ink and printing -- a total cost of $3,500, The edition of 300 Koursaros prints, valued at $375 apiece, is expected to bring in contributions totaling $112,500.
After Koursaros and the other artists finished their work, each print was examined by Paul Zerler, a New York expert who appraises works of art for banks and insurance companies. Zerler established the "suggested" contribution for each work of art.
"On the Kennedy thing, I tried to be . . . on the low side," Zerler explained. "So the people who make a contribution can get a good buy -- they get a little plus, financially, from helping the senator."
Alex Rosenburg, a New York gallery owner who has seen all the Kennedy prints, agrees that the suggested contributions are generally bargain prices. "That's a fantastic price for the Warhols," Rosenberg said "And the Rauschemberg, at $1,200, that's below market." But he said some other works were appraised "right about market value."
The artists aiding Kennedy recognize that their political contributions receive exceptional treatment under the federal election laws, but they consider this a fitting result because of the way artists' charitable contributions are treated under federal tax laws.
"When we give original works to charity," said Richard Anuszkiewicz, a leading colorist who has donated two works to the Kennedy drive, "the government doesn't let us take any tax deduction. Anybody else who gives to a charity gets a tax deduction. So now, on politics, they have to be consistent, and we've sort of got them trapped in their own rule." CAPTION: Pictures 1 and 2, Lowell Nesbitt's "Iris" has a suggested value of $400. A $500 contribution to Kennedy could obtain a Donald Saff original of "Trophy for John" Photos by D. James Dee for The Washington Post