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Deal of the art: White House grapples with ethics of Hunter Biden’s pricey paintings

Hunter Biden walks to Marine One on the Ellipse outside the White House on May 22. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images)

White House officials have helped craft an agreement under which purchases of Hunter Biden’s artwork — which could be listed at prices as high as $500,000 — will be kept confidential from even the artist himself, in an attempt to avoid ethical issues that could arise as a presidential family member tries to sell a product with a highly subjective value.

Under an arrangement negotiated in recent months, a New York gallery owner is planning to set prices for the art and will withhold all records, including potential bidders and final buyers. The owner, Georges Bergès, has also agreed to reject any offer that he deems suspicious or that comes in over the asking price, according to people familiar with the agreement.

Biden’s art sale, expected to take place this fall, comes with potential challenges. Not only has Biden previously been accused of trading in on his father’s name, but his latest vocation is in a field where works do not have a tangible fixed value and where concerns have arisen about secretive buyers and undisclosed sums.

Officials close to President Biden, who have helped craft the agreement along with Hunter Biden’s attorney, have attempted to do so in a way that allows the president’s son to pursue a new career while also adhering to the elder Biden’s pledge to reverse his predecessor’s ethical laxity, especially regarding family members.

But the arrangement is drawing detractors, including ethics experts as well as art critics who suggest that Hunter Biden’s art would never be priced so high if he had a different last name. Bergès has said that prices for the paintings would range from $75,000 to $500,000.

“The whole thing is a really bad idea,” said Richard Painter, who was chief ethics lawyer to President George W. Bush from 2005 to 2007. “The initial reaction a lot of people are going to have is that he’s capitalizing on being the son of a president and wants people to give him a lot of money. I mean, those are awfully high prices.”

A foreign government could front someone to make a purchase, Painter said, or lobbyists could try to buy the art to win goodwill from the White House. Art purchases are notoriously hard to track, and last year the Treasury Department warned that the secondary market for high-value art, and the anonymity of purchasers, could allow foreigners to circumvent sanctions and gain access to the U.S. economy.

“Because we don’t know who is paying for this art and we don’t know for sure that [Hunter Biden] knows, we have no way of monitoring whether people are buying access to the White House,” said Walter Shaub, who headed the Office of Government Ethics from 2013 to 2017. “What these people are paying for is Hunter Biden’s last name.”

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Hunter Biden, through his attorney Chris Clark, did not respond to an interview request for this article. When asked about the artwork — including terms of sale and potential ethics concerns — Clark referred questions to the White House.

Andrew Bates, the deputy White House press secretary, suggested that the buyers’ confidentiality would ensure the process is ethical. “The president has established the highest ethical standards of any administration in American history, and his family’s commitment to rigorous processes like this is a prime example,” Bates said.

Bergès, the gallery owner, did not respond to several requests for comment over the past week. But the arrangement was described by two officials familiar with it, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss it publicly.

A person who initially said she was calling on behalf of Bergès — but then said she couldn’t be quoted by name — confirmed that all sales would be kept secret and described any agreement as “nothing unusual.”

Some experts argued that the best protection against influence-seeking would be transparency, not secrecy. That way, they said, the public would know whether, say, a lobbyist had paid an exorbitant price.

But the officials who helped craft the agreement said that if buyers were publicly disclosed it would restrict interest, because the identities of most art purchasers are not automatically made public. There is also a secondary market, so even a publicly identified buyer might not be the one who ultimately bought the art.

In Hunter Biden’s case, if a buyer’s identity does become public, White House officials probably would be warned against giving that person any preferential treatment, and could be discouraged from working with them at all, according to a person familiar with the arrangement.

The younger Biden’s artistic project is another sign that he is planning to emerge more publicly than during the presidential campaign, when controversy around his foreign business dealings became a centerpiece of Republican attacks. He released a book earlier this year about his battle with addiction, going on a media tour to promote it.

That higher profile carries political risks for the president, as Republicans have signaled that they will investigate Hunter Biden if they win back the House next year. He also faces a federal tax investigation, although he maintains his innocence.

Ethics experts said there is little the president could do to stop his son from selling paintings even if he wanted to, and in general presidential children have been allowed to pursue careers.

“The basic presumption is adult kids are able to make a living . . . as long as a reasonable amount of distance is maintained from the White House,” said Norm Eisen, who developed White House ethics rules under President Barack Obama. “That means things like the White House should not be promoting the art show, which as far as I know they’re not doing.”

Eisen, who was known as “Mr. No” for his willingness to rule out questionable arrangements, said he would warn White House aides to stay away from anything involving the sale of art. He would also warn the president and first lady Jill Biden to be sensitive to any suggestion that they are promoting the work, he said.

There is a long history of presidential relatives’ careers causing headaches for the White House. President Jimmy Carter’s younger brother in 1977 marketed “Billy Beer,” selling it nationwide until, according to the brewery’s president, it “sank with the popularity of the president.”

After a Washington Post critic gave an unfavorable review of presidential daughter Margaret Truman’s singing performance — writing that she “cannot sing with anything approaching professional finish” — President Harry S. Truman wrote a scathing response on White House stationery, threatening that if he ever met the critic, “you’ll need a new nose, a lot of beefsteak for black eyes, and perhaps a supporter below!”

Eisen noted, “Probably that represented somewhat of a transgression for a president’s engagement in the life of an adult child.”

President Donald Trump’s children went beyond modern-day norms; his elder daughter and her husband spent four years as top White House advisers at the same time his two oldest sons ran the family business. Public money was often spent at Trump’s properties.

Hunter Biden’s case is much less far-reaching, but experts said it still must be scrutinized. “None of this gets close to the magnitude of the Trump problem,” Painter said. “But that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t do everything they can to not create the appearance that people are buying art just to ingratiate themselves with the Biden family.”

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The Georges Bergès Gallery’s brief online biography of Hunter Biden does not mention his famous father, instead calling him “a lawyer by trade who now devotes his life to the creative arts.” It describes his approach as one that “incorporates oil, acrylic, ink and the written word within his work to create a distinctively unique experience that have become signature Biden.”

Although some art critics have praised Hunter Biden’s art, several contacted by The Post found the asking prices of $75,000 to $500,000 hard to justify.

Marc Straus, who for the past decade has owned a gallery on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, said that among high-end art dealers, “nobody would ever start at these prices” for someone who has no professional training and has never sold art on the commercial market.

“There has to be a résumé that reasonably supports when you get that high,” Straus said. “To me, it’s pure ‘how good is it and what’s this artist’s potential, what’s the résumé?’ On that basis, it would be an entirely different price. But you give it a name like Hunter Biden, maybe they’ll get the price.”

He added, “My take was [the paintings] weren’t bad at all. But there’s a yawning gap between not bad and something fabulous.”

Some have been less generous. Jerry Saltz, a critic at New York magazine and author of the book “How to Be an Artist,” told Artnet News that the works could be described as “generic post zombie formalism illustration.”

Scott Indrisek, a former editor in chief of Modern Painters magazine and a former deputy editor at Artsy, said: “I would call it very much a hotel art aesthetic. It’s the most anonymous art I can imagine. It’s somewhere between a screen saver and if you just Googled ‘midcentury abstraction’ and mashed up whatever came up.”

Indrisek added, “If he wanted to be judged on his work alone, he’d show them under the name Hunter Wilson or something.”

A potentially similar situation arose when George W. Bush began pursuing a post-presidential painting career, crafting portraits of military veterans, immigrants and fellow politicians. He has published two books that contain his paintings and held exhibitions at his presidential library.

But according to a spokesman, Bush has not sold his artwork.

Bergès, the gallery owner, told Artnet that he is planning a private viewing of Hunter Biden’s art in Los Angeles followed by a New York exhibition. The $75,000 asking price will apply to works on paper, he said, and the $500,000 price tag will be attached to large paintings.

Biden described his artistic philosophy in a recent interview with Artnet.

“I don’t paint from emotion or feeling, which I think are both very ephemeral,” he said. “For me, painting is much more about kind of trying to bring forth what is, I think, the universal truth.”

In the past, he has suggested that his art allowed him to grapple with his addictions, but he said he is now using it for a broader purpose. “It comes from a much deeper place,” he said. “If you stand in front of a Rothko, the things that he evokes go far beyond the pain that Rothko was experiencing in his personal life at that moment.”

Biden’s parents have not commented on his painting, although Jill Biden has some of his art on display in her office.

Asked what his father thinks of his art, Hunter Biden told Artnet, “My dad loves everything that I do, and so I’ll leave it at that.”