The Georges Bergès Gallery has sat on a chic section of SoHo for six years, a relatively little-known newcomer to a New York art world that has long been dominated by well-known power brokers like Pace Gallery and Gagosian.
That summer, however, it unexpectedly became one of the most talked-about galleries in the country thanks to its plans to sell works by another relative newcomer to the art world: a young artist who happens to be the son of the President of the United States.
The gallery plans to sell 15 works by Hunter Biden and is asking for up to $ 500,000 each. The prices – which are high for an inexperienced artist – have raised questions in Washington as to whether the works might attract buyers looking to befriend the Biden White House.
In response, the administration helped develop a set of ethical guidelines that require the gallery to maintain buyers’ identities and other details of sales from both the artist and the administration.
While the art world is well known for its secrecy and lack of transparency, questions remain as to how the arrangement will work out in practice.
Mr Bergès said he believed the guidelines would “just work well” and that buyer anonymity could be preserved, although Hunter Biden plans to attend the openings of his shows, which will be held in a private studio in Los. Angeles will take place next month and then in October at the Bergès Gallery in New York.
“Of course, artists have to take part in their own vernissage – both vernissages are ‘by invitation only’ and limited to friends and family,” Bergès replied to written inquiries. “There will be no discussion of prices and sales – the gallery will do that at other times.” (Andrew Bates, a White House spokesman, said that neither the President nor the First Lady would attend the openings. The First Lady (Jill Biden has one of Hunter Biden’s pieces in her office.)
Mr Bergès said that he was attracted to Mr Biden’s work because of “its mastery of color and shape and, above all, its authenticity”. He said that Mr Biden’s struggles – who spoke of confronting drug addiction – are reflected in the work and that “I have seen many of the positive qualities that have defined his life in his art – the heroic journey that comes “from stumbling and falling and then getting up; his art is full of hope. “
The prices that Mr. Bergès claims to seek for Mr. Biden’s works – between $ 75,000 for works on paper and up to $ 500,000 for large-format works – are high for a new artist, even one with a household name. several artists experts said.
“That raises your eyebrows,” said Cristin Tierney, a New York gallery owner. “I have artists who have very real careers who may not sell that much in dollars over ten years cumulative.”
Seasoned collectors typically look for pieces by artists whose work has been reviewed by more established galleries, museums, or the market. Investor-minded buyers also want paintings or sculptures that are likely to increase in value over time.
“I don’t think there has been any discussion of Hunter Biden in the market – he doesn’t seem to be on the radar of any of the collectors, market makers, or specialists I’ve spoken to,” said Edward Dolman. the manager of the auction house Phillips. “Celebrity has a certain value, but at the end of the day the quality of the art determines how the market deals with it.”
Many public figures have tried their hand at the arts – including leaders like George W. Bush, Winston Churchill, and Jimmy Carter, and Hollywood stars like Sylvester Stallone, Jim Carrey, and Anthony Hopkins – but the art world rarely takes its work seriously.
“It’s kind of an insult to the art ecosystem, as if anyone could do it,” Lisa Schiff, a New York art consultant, said of the Biden example.
When asked about the prices, Mr Bergès said he was guided by his experience. “Ultimately, the market will decide, but it’s my job to advance an artist’s career and price is never the only determinant of an artist’s worth,” he said. “I believe Hunter’s art is special – it has a deep energy that gives me hope and assurances for a better future; and I wonder how much is that worth to you? “
Mr Biden recently told the Nota Bene podcast that it had no role in setting prices or financial expectations, dismissing critics salty. “I would be amazed if my art had sold for $ 10,” he said, noting that the prices were “entirely subjective”.
But the sale has opened a debate over whether the president’s son is trying to make money off his last name and whether his art could be a window of influence on the Biden government.
“We have a situation where the White House is essentially putting a political stance on a private gallery owner that no one has ever heard of,” said Joan Kee, professor of art history at the University of Michigan.
Hunter Biden’s endeavors for a private career have already put him under the microscope, particularly from his father’s political opponents. Former President Donald J. Trump’s request for foreign aid to investigate Hunter Biden’s role with a Ukrainian gas company, Burisma, kicked off Trump’s first impeachment.
And Hunter Biden announced in December that the US Attorney’s Office in Delaware was investigating his “tax affairs” and added that he was confident that he had acted “legally and appropriately.”
Some critics have said that his association with the president still at least appears to be benefiting financially, suggesting that the Biden White House should do more, especially as it has vowed to raise the bar for ethical compliance much higher lay the experience of the Trump years. (A New York Times investigation found that over 200 corporations, interest groups, and foreign governments patronized Mr. Trump’s properties while benefiting from him and his administration.)
“We just spent four years watching people eat at the Trump Hotel because that would actually make the president happy,” said Jessica Tillipman, assistant dean of public procurement at George Washington University Law School. “In a subjective area like art, in which there are no price norms and the reputation of money laundering, more transparency is required here, not less.”
But the White House has said its order to erect a wall of anonymity between the president and his son’s art career will ensure that collectors don’t buy influence alongside art.
“I think it would be a challenge for an anonymous person who we don’t know and Hunter Biden doesn’t know has influence,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters last month at a briefing. “So that’s a protection.”
Mr Bergès said that buyer confidentiality is standard and that “for obvious reasons, artists never know who the actual buyer of the work is – one of them so that the gallery is not bypassed in future sales.”
In fact, however, artists are often informed – and may have a say – where their work is placed.
The government is confident the guidelines, which the White House Legal Department helped develop, would discourage people from citing a purchase of Hunter Biden’s art as evidence of ties to the government. Administration officials would advise against ever dealing with a buyer who went public with information about a purchase, said a person familiar with the plan.
Mr. Bergès said he met Hunter Biden about two years ago through a mutual collector friend; he wouldn’t say if any of Mr. Biden’s works had already sold.
Mr Bergès started his gallery in SoHo in 2015 and said he previously worked as a retailer. He also has a location in Berlin and plans to expand to Los Angeles and Mexico City. He is not a member of the Art Dealers Association of America. The 20 artists on his website include Todd Williamson, who had an installation at the Venice Biennale in 2019, and Laddie John Dill, whose works are in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art. Most of them are not known.
The Biden auction took a close look at Mr Bergès from outside the art world. Fox News released a report on its ambitions in China. His gallery was destroyed when an artist and documentary filmmaker sprayed the word “Daddy” backwards on a gallery wall.
CBS News reported that in 1998, while still a student, Mr. Bergès was arrested in California for assault with a lethal weapon and “terrorist threats,” citing Santa Cruz police records. Mr Bergès said through a spokeswoman that the main charges had been dismissed and that he had ultimately not moved to contest an offense charges over an argument with a male roommate. A few months after the arrest, he filed for personal bankruptcy, CBS reported.
When asked about these events, Mr. Bergès said: “I was a child; we all make mistakes. Hopefully we will learn from them and do better in the future. I know I did that. “
In 2016, Mr. Bergès was sued in New York federal court for fraud and breach of contract by an artist who allegedly invested $ 500,000 in the gallery. The spokeswoman for Mr Bergès said he had filed a counterclaim of $ 2.9 million, including defamation and breach of duty of loyalty. The lawsuit was settled in 2018.
“Like humans, people get into disagreements,” said Mr Bergès. “It is noteworthy that this was the only disagreement that has resulted in a lawsuit in my entire career, which is quite remarkable in this industry when you look at my peers.”
On the Bergès Gallery website – with a black and white photo of an unkempt Mr Biden with his fingers thoughtfully on his temple – it says that Mr Biden’s paintings “range from photographic to mixed media to abstract works on canvas, Yupo paper, wood and metal. He uses oil, acrylic, ink and the written word to create unique experiences that have become his trademark. “
Mr Bergès said he was impressed with the way Mr Biden works across different media. “Hunter approaches his art fearlessly and you can’t blame him for seeing everything he’s been through and survived,” he said.
But some art experts suggested that Mr. Biden’s skills still have some work to do. “It seems to take up the technical lessons of certain artists,” said Ms. Tierney, “but has not yet found a unique voice.”
On the gallery’s website, Hunter Biden’s biography describes him as a “lawyer by profession” who “is now devoting his career to the creative arts.” He doesn’t mention his father.
Additional coverage from Zolan Kanno-Youngs, Adam Popescu and Julia Jacobs.