House GOP Takes On Secretive Art World in Probe of Hunter Biden’s High-Priced Artwork
The first son’s oeuvre allegedly conflates art and access. Then again, too, worse paintings have passed for high art.
The launch of an investigation by House Republicans into the sale of Hunter Biden’s artwork will pit the House Oversight Committee against not only the shadowy world of the first family’s business dealings and but also of the high end art market.
Congressman James Comer, chairman of Oversight, has been zeroed in on the Biden family’s finances since the GOP gained control of the lower chamber. One focus of that scrutiny is the sale of the younger Mr. Biden’s artwork, what Mr. Comer calls “Hunter Biden’s anonymous, high-dollar art transactions.”
In 2021, a Biden administration spokesman claimed that the “president has established the highest ethical standards of any administration in American history.”
Mr. Biden is represented at New York by Georges Bergès, who runs a gallery of the same name. Based at SoHo and Berlin, the gallery “prides itself on introducing collectors to the art and artists that will come to define tomorrow’s artworld.” Among these artists sits Mr. Biden, who is prominently listed as one of “Our Artists” on the gallery’s website.
Keeping the bidders and buyers secret is the lynchpin of the process, which also empowers Mr. Bergès to set the prices himself and reject those that appear inflated. The gallery explains that “a lawyer by profession, Hunter Biden now devotes his energies to the creative arts, bringing innumerable experiences to bear.” It notes that his “chosen substrates are canvas, YUPO paper, wood, and metal on which he affixes oil, acrylic, ink along with the written word.” It asserts a “unique experience that has become his signature.”
Mr. Comer notes that “Mr. Bergès is completely refusing to cooperate with the Committee’s requests” and that this is not the first time the lawmaker has requested “documents sufficient to show who purchased Hunter Biden’s artwork.” The state of play has been outlined in a correspondence between Mr. Comer and Mr. Bergès’s lawyer, William Pittard.
The prices for Mr. Biden’s work, according to Mr. Bergès, range “between $75,000 and $500,000” per piece. Given those princely sums, Mr. Comers’s committee wants to know “who attended the opening of Hunter Biden’s art shows” and if there has been any communication between the gallery and the White House.
In reference to the works’ asking prices, an art professor, John Ploff, told Politico that “you’re paying for the brush with fame. That’s like a campaign contribution, right?” An art critic named Ben Davis added that “it is absolutely, 100 percent certain that what is being sold is the Biden name and story.”
Another art critic, Sebastian Smee, when asked by CNN whether “Hunter Biden’s work any good, aesthetically speaking,” replied, “Not really,” and said the work “has the feeling of an afterthought. It doesn’t feel like it needed to be made, except perhaps as a therapeutic exercise.”
Writing in the New York Times, Jason Farago was more generous, if not ecstatic, observing that some of the paintings convey a “seriousness of purpose, even if you forget them days or minutes late,r” and laments a “ghastly new-age portrait of a bald person, or maybe a bald extraterrestrial.” Another work “would fit in well at the Burning Man festival.” Mr. Biden began painting during his rehabilitation from drugs and alcohol.
Mr. Bergès tells Artnet News: “I represent Hunter Biden because I feel that not only his art merits my representation, but because his personal narrative, which gives birth to his art, is very much needed in the world.” He adds that Mr Biden’s “story reflects what I believe is the beauty of humanity, judged not by the fall, but by having the strength to rise up.”
Mr. Comer avers that “despite being a novice artist, Hunter Biden received exorbitant amounts of money selling his artwork, the buyers’ identities remain unknown, and you appear to be the sole record keeper of these lucrative transactions.”
Ironically, whether the sums being paid for Mr. Biden’s work are out of line might be hard to prove, considering some of what passes for high art in the world of abstract and conceptual art these days. Jeff Koons’s “Balloon Dog” — exactly what you would expect — sold for more than $58 million at Christie’s in 2013, and a non-fungible token version of work by Mike Winkelmann, also known as “Beeple,” fetched $69 million in 2021.
Mr. Bergès claims that the communications are privileged, and cites Trump v. Mazars USA, from 2020, to that effect. Mr. Comer retorts that relying on the privileges of the executive is misplaced, as “Mr. Bergès is not the President of the United States.” The House Committee on Oversight and Accountability has the authority to investigate “any matter” at “any time” under House Rule X.
The chief of the Government Ethics Office under President Obama, Walter Shaub, told CNN that the Biden administration has “basically outsourced government ethics to a private art dealer and they’re depending on unknown art purchasers to help keep the secret.”
The Sun spoke to a law professor, Erin Thompson, who bills herself as “America’s only professor of art crime.” She noted that as private institutions, art galleries and auction houses have broad latitude to guard anonymity. As with any crime, the Fourth Amendment requires the government to show “probable cause” to gain access to information regarding buyers and sellers.
A Department of the Treasury report from February of last year found that “several qualities inherent to high-value art” could “make the high-value art market attractive for money laundering by criminals.”
Viewers can take a virtual tour of Mr. Biden’s work — the collection is called “The Journey Home” — here. The “solo exhibition” is adorned with a quote from Joseph Campbell that reads: “where we had thought to find an abomination, we shall find a god.”
Mr. Hoffman is an associate editor of the Sun, where he covers politics and culture. He holds a PhD from Harvard and a law degree from Stanford, and was a 2021-2022 Journalism Fellow at the Hartman Institute. He is an adjunct professor at New York University.