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

Hunter Biden, seen during the 2020 Democratic National Convention, is looking to sell his artwork, creating ethics challenges for the White House.
Hunter Biden, seen during the 2020 Democratic National Convention, is looking to sell his artwork, creating ethics challenges for the White House.

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.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.