Hunter Biden's art gallery arrangement is 'whacko,' according to ethics law expert

·5 min read
Hunter Biden's art gallery arrangement is 'whacko,' according to ethics law expert
Hunter Biden
  • A law professor and ethics expert says the nature of Hunter Biden's art sales are "whacko."

  • "It's bizarre that that's the solution that they came upon," Kathleen Clark told Politico.

  • Experts are criticizing the gallery and White House's attempts to insulate the art sales from undue influence.

Legal ethics expert Kathleen Clark, a professor at Washington University School of Law, told Politico Magazine that the Hunter Biden's arrangement to sell his paintings is "whacko," adding to the criticism that the White House faces from experts over Hunter's high-priced art sales.

White House officials came to an unprecedented agreement with the New York City gallery housing Hunter's art that allows President Joe Biden's eldest son, to earn a living from his art while, in theory, not knowing who buys his paintings. The arrangement is an effort to offset concerns about a conflict of interest posed by powerful people who might want to exert influence over the White House through his son's art.

But government ethics and legal experts like Clark, an expert in government ethics, are crying foul, compounding the scrutiny Hunter has faced over his business dealings during his father's 2020 campaign and presidency.

"It leaves, frankly, the Biden administration wide open to concerns that people are going to buy influence by buying Hunter Biden's paintings at what might be inflated prices," Clark told Politico's Ben Schreckinger. "The idea of keeping the identity of the buyers secret or the price secret is no way to protect the public interest or ensure public confidence that there isn't corruption going on. It's bizarre that that's the solution that they came upon."

Hunter took up painting as a hobby during his recovery from drug and alcohol addiction and found refuge in art while he was at the center of the 2019 impeachment trial of former President Donald Trump, he told The New York Times in 2020.

Under the terms of the arrangement, first reported by the Washington Post in July, the gallery owner Georges Bergès said he'll set the prices of the art himself, won't disclose who bids on and purchases the paintings, and will reject offers that seem too high to just be for the art alone.

The hefty prices of Hunter's art only add to the scrutiny. Bergès predicted the individual pieces of art could go for anywhere from $75,000 to $500,000 each, eye-poppingly high prices for a new artist on the scene like Hunter.

The often-secretive nature of art purchases and the difficulty of comprehensively tracing who buys and sells expensive artwork doesn't entirely preclude someone who wants to exert influence over the Biden White House from trying to do so by buying or expressing interest in the art.

Hunter Biden and Joe Biden
Vice President Joe Biden (R) speaks as his son, Hunter Biden, looks on at the World Food Program USA's Annual McGovern-Dole Leadership Award Ceremony at Organization of American States on April 12, 2016 in Washington, DC. Photo by Paul Morigi/Getty Images for World Food Program USA

And subsequent events have also shown how difficult it is, in practice, to separate the art from the (famous and politically connected) artist.

At a recent pop-up showing his art at Milk Studios in Los Angeles, where he lives, Hunter mingled with potential buyers and wealthy power players including Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, who is Biden's nominee for US Ambassador to India, former Stockton, California mayor Michael Tubbs, singer Moby, and boxer Sugar Ray Leonard, CNN reported.

The outlet previously reported that Hunter would not discuss possible sales and only his "creative process."

Danielle Brian, executive director of the Project on Government Oversight, told CNN that Hunter's appearance nevertheless "undermined the White House's early claims that neither he, nor the White House, would know who bought his art."

"The silver lining to this dark cloud is now the rest of us also know the universe of who might be interested in buying the paintings - which will make it easier to track if those people are attempting to curry favor with the White House through the President's son," she said.

Richard Painter, the former top White House ethics lawyer under President George W. Bush, told The Washington Post in July that the whole thing is "a really bad idea," saying, "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."

Painter subsequently told CNN after the gallery show that "this secrecy thing never was going to work," saying the White House should have taken a much stricter approach from the beginning, if not banning Hunter from making so much money off his art altogether.

"Plan B would be to find out who these buyers are and to keep them as far away from the executive branch as possible. And you would not have prospective ambassador nominee showing the art gallery," he said of Garcetti's presence.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki, who previously said that Hunter "has the right to pursue an artistic career, just like any child of a president has the right to pursue a career," reiterated the terms of the agreement and deflected questions about the showing itself at her October 6 briefing.

"I'd refer you to the gallerist for questions about the event, as well as the representatives for Mr. Garcetti in terms of his attendance," she said.

Another legal ethics expert, George Washington University Law School's Jessica Tillipman, told Politico Magazine that the White House had "botched" the entire arrangement.

"Now, he's privately meeting with potential buyers and quote unquote he's never going to know [if they then made a purchase] because he's just outsourced the ethics function to this art dealer, and we're supposed to just rely on that?" she said.

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