At some point in the coming weeks, hundreds of thousands of dollars will be funneled to the son of the sitting American president—and none of us will know anything about who sent the money, or where it originally came from, or why anyone chose to send it in the first place.
The transactions will nominally center on artwork created by Hunter Biden, President Joe Biden’s son. After spending years working alongside post-Soviet oligarchs—work that complicated his father’s anti-corruption efforts in Ukraine—Hunter has tossed on a new hat as an emerging “artist.” CNN has reported that his debut shows—one in Los Angeles, another in New York—will be held in late September, though the dates haven’t been announced (which may be because of the scrutiny the sales have received). Whenever they happen, Hunter will make the transition from unqualified oil-and-gas adviser to budding Basquiat—and will offer his artwork to the highest bidders his gallery can attract. The sales have raised concerns that buyers will purchase the art to curry favor with the president, creating an ethics minefield for the White House.
Hunter’s artwork isn’t bad, per se. A certain base-level skill is evident in the paintings. Sebastian Smee, the Pulitzer Prize–winning art critic for The Washington Post, told CNN that Biden was comparable to “a cafe painter. By which I mean, you see a certain kind of art in coffee shops, and some of it is OK and a lot of it is bad, and sometimes it’s surprisingly good. But you wouldn’t, unless you were related to the artist, spend more than $1,000 on it.”
Unfortunately for the White House, the people about to profit from Hunter’s foray into the art world are anticipating far higher returns—and suddenly presenting the Biden administration with a new Hunter-related headache. Hunter’s gallerist, Georges Bergès, has said he’s expecting as much as $500,000 for some of the paintings. That’s a pricing echelon that would put Hunter, a person with no formal artistic training, “in the very top tier of emerging artists,” according to Artnet. (“The whole thing is very, very weird,” added Artnet’s Ben Davis, not least because the Bergès Gallery’s previous best-known client was Sylvester Stallone.) For his part, Hunter has been clear about what he’d say to those questioning the propriety of his shows: “Other than fuck ’em?”
As of now, the Biden administration appears caught between the appearance of something wildly untoward and the reality that there’s not a whole lot it can do about the situation. Hunter remains a private citizen and is allowed to sell his scribblings to whomever he’d like, regardless of the provenance of the funds and the buyer’s motivation. Attempting to untangle this Gordian knot of ethical concerns, the White House and the gallerist struck a deal in July. Although the full details haven’t been revealed, both CNN and CBS have reported a number of particulars. Per the agreement, Hunter will supposedly never know the identity of the buyers, or even of the underbidders. If you squint, you could see how such a deal would address the ethical concerns. After all, if Hunter doesn’t know who’s showering him with hundreds of thousands of dollars for his paintings, how could they ever get in his good graces?
But further details undercut whatever protections the agreement may provide. Hunter will appear in person at the shows. “Of course [Hunter Biden] will be there,” the gallery spokesperson said. He’s supposed to refrain from discussing any sales and will instead “keep the conversations focused on the creative process of his art.” Nevertheless, he’ll be schmoozing with any and all potential buyers—buyers who are vetted solely by his own gallerist. (A representative of the Georges Bergès Gallery told me Bergès was “unavailable for comment”; George Mesires, an attorney for Hunter Biden, did not respond to my requests for comment.)
And yet there are no guarantees that these guidelines will be followed. There is no way to ensure that the gallery owner will keep purchasers’ names private, or that Hunter—a man not exactly known for his tactfulness—will stick to the script. As Walter Shaub, the former head of the U.S. Office of Government Ethics, said in July, “There’s no mechanism for monitoring, no mechanism for notifying the public if confidentiality is broken, no mechanism for tracking if buyers get access to [the government].”
In short, little will guard against the possibility that the buyers may be interested in something beyond Hunter’s paintings—and that they may be willing to pay however much they need for access to the man whose father sits in the Oval Office.
Hunter Biden is, of course, hardly the first relative of a sitting American president to capitalize on their last name. The entire Trump brood was one oleaginous mass of conflicts of interest, foreign entanglements, and suspect financing. Even that lodestar of ethical leadership, Jimmy Carter, saw his family race to the shady-money trough after he became president: His brother lobbied for the Libyan regime, and his son was a computer consultant for the Marcos dictatorship in the Philippines. To be fair, there is no reason to assume that President Biden would ever succor his son’s potential patrons—just look at how then–Vice President Biden browbeat corrupt figures in Ukraine while Hunter sat on the board of Burisma.
Still, this is a situation without modern precedent: A presidential family member is bartering something intangible, something without any intrinsic value whatsoever—except the undeniable value of the painter’s last name. He’s selling abstract, two-dimensional images, and charging tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars, while hiding the identity of the people he’s selling them to.
That opacity may be problematic given the people involved in this gambit, but it’s not unusual for the multibillion-dollar global art and auction markets. To the contrary, it’s the norm. As one pro-transparency activist recently said, “[The art market] is often called … the largest unregulated market in the world.” Unsurprisingly, this lack of regulation has attracted widespread criminal activity. Over the past decade, the industry has exploded into one of the world’s most popular conduits for the anonymous, unchecked laundering of dirty money into legitimate assets.
The U.S. has stood at the center of this transformation. With the largest art market in the world, and the second-largest auction market (after China’s), the U.S. provides platforms for billions of unregulated dollars to flow freely and anonymously among buyers, sellers, and middlemen. And though other industries—banking, shell-company providers, and the like—now face a complex web of rules and regulations designed to block dirty money, the American art industry remains completely exposed to any comers. As The New York Times recently summed, “Buyers typically have no idea where the work they are purchasing is coming from. Sellers are similarly in the dark about where a work is going.” All that matters is that mountains of unchecked monies exchange hands—gallery and auction-house owners take anywhere from 20 to 50 percent (or more) of the sale prices as commissions—resulting in the transfer of staggering wealth.
Examples abound. Last year, an in-depth Senate report uncovered that a pair of sanctioned Russian oligarchs allegedly laundered millions of dollars via the American art market, all in order to skirt U.S. sanctions. (A representative for the oligarchs has denied the allegations.) In 2011, the U.S. Department of Justice filed a complaint against Teodoro Nguema Obiang Mangue, the son of Equatorial Guinea’s long-standing dictator, alleging that he’d used American auction houses to transform some of his ill-gotten gains into, among other things, the world’s greatest collection of Michael Jackson memorabilia, including the Prince of Pop’s crystal-studded glove. One former federal investigator told me that Obiang is the “poster child of kleptocracy.” (As part of a settlement agreement with the DOJ, Obiang forfeited $30 million in assets but did not admit any wrongdoing.) And Jho Low, the Malaysian financier at the center of a multibillion-dollar laundering racket, allegedly used his art as collateral for a nine-figure loan from Sotheby’s, one of the leading auction houses in the world. No safeguards, no financial checks, no questions asked. (Low was indicted by federal prosecutors on charges related to the alleged embezzlement scheme; he denied wrongdoing and remains at large.)
The market is essentially expected to police itself—but why would it? Simply too much money is at stake, and, according to one legal scholar, “art dealers have little incentive other than good faith to flag possible money-laundering schemes involving artwork for law enforcement.” As an auction-house executive who worked with the son of Equatorial Guinea’s dictator told me, Obiang “was always a decent guy … It’s hard to—he’s a client—hard to take that hat off and look objectively. Because he did help our business—and was a good client.”
Instead, we have to take dealers at their word when they say they’re on the lookout for questionable funds flooding the market. In the case of Hunter Biden, that means we have to trust that the gallerist selling the artwork is sufficient defense against the possibility of dirty money flowing directly into the pockets of the president’s son.
Recently, however, signs indicate that some long-overdue transparency—or at least less opacity—may be coming to the art and auction markets. Earlier this year, with little fanfare, Congress passed legislation requiring antiquities dealers to identify the people behind the sales and purchases, cutting off a key stream for oligarchs, organized criminals, and others who secretly move looted artifacts under the cover of shell companies. Although the new regulations are limited only to antiquities, they set the playbook for the kinds of rules that could soon apply to the art business. As a first step, Congress earlier this year mandated a federal study on financial malfeasance in the art market. As the Senate report from last year stated, “Congress should add high-value art to the list of industries that must comply with [Bank Secrecy Act] requirements. Given the intrinsic secrecy of the art industry, it is clear that change is needed in this multi-billion-dollar industry.”
Smaller dealers may gripe about the costs of complying with additional regulations—and not without reason. But unfortunately for them, they operate in a sector that’s become too compromised for the government to keep ignoring it. This regulation is clearly necessary, and those who have profited from the art market’s explosion over the past few decades can see what’s now barreling toward them. “We are in the paranoid-terrified phase of what’s going to come down the pike,” the former head of the Art Dealers Association of America said earlier this year. “Right now, I think people are a little panicked.”
Hunter Biden’s debut will only add to this heightened scrutiny—and might accelerate change in the industry. In addition to the calls for reform that have been growing louder in recent years, freshman GOP Representative Mike Waltz introduced a bill in late July that would force all children and stepchildren of sitting presidents to reveal the sources of their income. Waltz dubbed the bill the Preventing Assets and Investments With No Transparency From Executive Relatives Act, or, fittingly enough, the PAINTER Act.