Hunter Biden's Paintings Are Going On Sale, Drawing Critics Of Art And Ethics

Jul 14, 2021
Originally published on July 14, 2021 11:46 am

Updated July 14, 2021 at 9:47 AM ET

At 51 years old, having made it through a long and tumultuous period of substance use, Hunter Biden has poured himself into painting. A New York gallery is preparing to show and sell his work, prompting the White House to announce an arrangement aimed at insulating President Biden and his son from ethical pitfalls.

But the arrangement is not convincing experts in the art world or government ethics.

"All interactions regarding the selling of art and the setting of prices will be handled by a professional gallerist, adhering to the highest industry standards," White House press secretary Jen Psaki said at a recent briefing.

She added that any offer out of the norm would be tossed, "and the gallerist will not share information about buyers or prospective buyers, including their identities, with Hunter Biden or the administration."

The gallerist, Georges Bergès, has praised Biden's skill as an artist and said the works on paper and canvas will be priced at between $75,000 and $500,000 each.

The president's son earned notoriety over his consulting work for a Ukrainian gas company and other business arrangements that appeared to capitalize on the Biden name. Now, as he tries to make it as a professional artist, a question lingers: Would any other comparable artist in a first gallery show fetch such high prices?

"Discussing the aesthetics of Hunter Biden's work is sort of a rabbit hole," said William Powhida, an artist based in Brooklyn. "It may not necessarily help get us to why the paintings would start at $75,000."

Powhida said he had never heard of the gallery owner, who doesn't have a very long track record.

"I think it's pretty obvious that Hunter Biden's works would not sell for these kinds of prices were he not the son of the current sitting president," said Joan Kee, a professor in the History of Art Department at the University of Michigan. "So that already sets up a potential conflict of interest."

Biden's paintings will get an invitation-only showing in Los Angeles in September and go on display in October at the Georges Bergès Gallery in New York City.

Biden isn't a government employee and has no legal obligation to keep an arm's length from the art sales, but the president ran on ethics and transparency as a contrast with numerous infractions in the Trump administration, with evidence that the former president profited off his public service. The Biden White House made a point of saying it had worked out an arrangement to head off some of the ethical pitfalls around the new career of the president's adult son.

Walter Shaub, who was head of the Office of Government Ethics in the Obama administration, said this arrangement won't fix all the ethical problems.

"This has nothing in common with a blind trust except that the White House is asking the public to blindly trust some art dealer and a bunch of unknown art buyers to keep the government ethical and to honor their secrets," Shaub said.

Another question remains though: Will anyone be willing to pay that much money for a Hunter Biden painting?

"There are 7 billion people on the planet," said Axios' Felix Salmon, who has been covering the art market for years. "Is it hypothetically possible that one or two of them may be interested in paying that much for one of these paintings? Sure. But it's unlikely."

If there really are buyers for the art though, the White House argues this arrangement would prevent them from buying influence as well.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

We have an update now on the art career of Hunter Biden. The president's son made news for his consulting work for a Ukrainian gas company years ago. He was criticized for other business arrangements that appeared to capitalize on the Biden name. Now, what is the proper value of a painting signed Biden? Here's NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: At 51 years old, having made it through a long and tumultuous period of substance use, Hunter Biden has poured himself into painting. The work is modern. I asked artist William Powhida to describe the Biden pieces he's seen.

WILLIAM POWHIDA: Let's say, just kind of abstract patterns with some geometric designs laid on top of those, occasionally kind of suggesting maybe a figurative element to them.

KEITH: Others have been less charitable, describing Biden's paintings as having a hotel art aesthetic - in other words, sort of generic and inoffensive. The art dealer representing Biden, Georges Berges, has praised his skill as an artist and says the works on paper and canvas will be priced between 75,000 and half a million dollars each. But Powhida is skeptical.

POWHIDA: Discussing the aesthetics of Hunter Biden's work is sort of a rabbit hole (laughter). It may not necessarily help get us to why the paintings would start at $75,000.

KEITH: Powhida says he had never heard of the gallery owner, who doesn't have a very long track record. Comparable artists with their first solo show wouldn't get anywhere near those prices.

JOAN KEE: It's pricing that completely capitalizes on Hunter Biden's connection to the White House.

KEITH: Joan Kee is a professor in the History of Art Department at the University of Michigan. And she's also a lawyer. She says overpricing art can do long-term damage to an artist's career if prices then plummet at auction later on.

KEE: I think it's pretty obvious that Hunter Biden's works would not sell for these kinds of prices were he not the son of the current sitting president. And so that already sets up a potential conflict of interest.

KEITH: Biden's paintings will get an invitation-only showing in Los Angeles in September, and in October will go on display at the Georges Berges Gallery in New York City. The White House helped set up an arrangement where it says only Berges and the buyers will know who purchased the paintings. Here's Press Secretary Jen Psaki.

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JEN PSAKI: All interactions regarding the selling of art and the setting of prices will be handled by professional gallerists adhering to the highest industry standards. And any offer out of the normal course would be rejected out of hand. And the gallerists will not share information about buyers or prospective buyers, including their identities, with Hunter Biden or the administration.

KEITH: Hunter Biden isn't a government employee and has no legal obligation to do any of this. But Walter Shaub, who was head of the Office of Government Ethics in the Obama administration, says this arrangement won't fix all of the ethical problems.

WALTER SHAUB: This has nothing in common with a blind trust except that the White House is asking the public to blindly trust some art dealer and a bunch of unknown art buyers to honor their secrets.

KEITH: Art pricing is complex and murky in the best of circumstances. Remember the banana duct taped to a gallery wall that went for more than 100,000 dollars? Felix Salmon with Axios has been covering the art market for years. He questions whether the Biden paintings will sell for the very high advertised prices, if at all.

FELIX SALMON: Is it hypothetically possible? I mean, there are 7 billion people on the planet. Is it hypothetically possible that one or two of them might be interested in paying that much for one of these paintings? Sure. But it's unlikely.

KEITH: If there really are buyers for the art, though, the White House argues this arrangement would prevent them from buying influence as well.

Tamara Keith, NPR News.

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