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Opinion Hunter Biden is going about his art career all wrong

Hunter Biden departs the Capitol building after Inauguration on Wednesday, Jan 20, 2021. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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When it comes to navigating the tricky ethical issues that may arise around Hunter Biden’s budding career as an artist, he is going about it in exactly the wrong way. What this situation calls for is transparency — the more of it, the better.

As The Post has reported, the president’s son, who has no professional training and has never before sold art on the commercial market, has struck an arrangement with a New York gallery owner under which Biden’s art — described as paintings, drawings and collages — will go on sale this fall for asking prices that are expected to reach as high as $500,000 for a single piece.

However, under terms negotiated by parties described as “officials close to President Biden,” the gallery owner, Georges Bergès, will withhold all records of the transactions, including final sales and the identities of buyers and bidders. Bergès, The Post reported, “has also agreed to reject any offer that he deems suspicious or that comes in over the asking price.”

Got that? To insulate these purchases from the obvious potential for conflict-of-interest violations, we are counting on the sole judgment of a gallery owner who stands to make a profit on the deal. And we are relying on the assumption that the details can remain confidential in a political world in which pretty much nothing does.

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It is also worth noting that high-value art is a business in which it is not unheard of for foreign buyers and sketchy parties to disguise their identities by using others to make their purchases.

I have no problem with Hunter Biden’s learning who is buying his art, and how much they are paying.

In fact, I think we all should know.

These transactions could then be subjected to the scrutiny of art critics and professional appraisers who can tell those of us who don’t know a Warhol soup can from an original by Campbell’s whether the value of Biden’s talent resembles the amount that is being paid for it.

We could also learn whether his artwork is being purchased by connoisseurs known for having a knack for spotting rising talent, or people who have never previously stepped inside an auction house, but who happen to be in the market for a tax break or a bit of regulatory relief from the government.

Hunter Biden has already come under legitimate criticism for making money off his last name. But he is hardly the first presidential kin to do so.

Have some of these earlier endeavors been tacky? Yes. And ethically suspect? Yes again.

When Jimmy Carter was in the Oval Office, each can of a certain light-bodied lager known as “Billy Beer” came with the personal endorsement of the president’s brother: "I had this beer brewed up just for me. I think it’s the best I ever tasted. And I’ve tasted a lot. I think you’ll like it, too.”

As first lady, Eleanor Roosevelt appeared in advertisements for hot dog buns, mattresses and air travel.

Meanwhile, it is hard to keep count of the number of presidential children and other family members who have written books. Hunter Biden himself made the bestseller lists earlier this year with a scorching memoir in which he wrote of his battles with addiction.

But in all of these instances, there was an aftermarket: Did a publisher pay too high an advance for, say, a children’s book or a novel written by a president’s daughter? It was easy enough to tell by looking at the sales figures.

Biden’s defenders are certain to ask: Well, what about the Trumps?

Yes, it is true that the 45th president and his family set a new standard for shamelessness.

Where his predecessors divested their businesses and put their assets into blind trust, Trump only went so far as to turn over day-to-day management of his companies to sons Donald Trump Jr. and Eric Trump. His eldest daughter and her husband worked in the White House as top advisers. The family patronized its own properties, which meant that taxpayer dollars, spent for security and other purposes, helped keep their operations afloat.

But what President Biden has promised is, in the words of White House spokesman Andrew Bates, “the highest ethical standards of any administration in American history.”

This isn’t a close call. Hunter Biden may be the next great wonder of the art world. If he is, I wish him all the acclaim that he deserves. But keeping things under wraps is not the way to go about it.

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