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Hunter Biden expected to meet with potential art buyers before anonymous sales

CBS News logo CBS News 7/21/2021 Bo Erickson, Fin Gomez and Arden Farhi
Hunter Biden et al. standing next to a person in a suit and tie: US-POLITICS-BIDEN © BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images US-POLITICS-BIDEN

Hunter Biden is expected to meet with prospective buyers at two art shows where his paintings will be on display later this year, according to a spokesperson for the New York gallery retained to sell art made by the president's son.

The shows, a small, private affair in Los Angeles and a larger exhibition in New York City, will give Biden an opportunity to interact with potential buyers of his paintings, which the gallery expects to sell for as much as $500,000. 

Asked whether Hunter Biden would attend both events, Georges Berges Gallery spokeswoman Robin Davis said, "Oh yes. With pleasure. He's looking forward to it. It is like someone debuting in the world. And of course he will be there. "

Davis also said that at the two art shows "everyone will be vetted...so, whomever is appropriate will be attending."

Hunter Biden's appearance at the shows, where he'll presumably socialize with potential buyers, is seemingly at odds with an agreement struck with the gallery owner that aims to keep buyers' identities secret from Biden, President Biden, the White House, and the public. 

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Hunter Biden wearing a suit and tie talking on a cell phone: Hunter Biden walks to Marine One on the Ellipse outside the White House May 22, 2021, in Washington, D.C. / Credit: BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images © Provided by CBS News Hunter Biden walks to Marine One on the Ellipse outside the White House May 22, 2021, in Washington, D.C. / Credit: BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images

Some government ethics experts have expressed concerns buyers could purchase Hunter Biden's art to gain influence with his father, Mr. Biden. Keeping the buyers anonymous is meant to guard against that. 

"Well, I think it would be challenging for an anonymous person who we don't know and Hunter Biden doesn't know to have influence," White House press secretary Jen Psaki said during a recent press briefing. "So that's a protection."

In response to questions about Hunter Biden attending the gallery events with potential buyers, White House spokesman Andrew Bates pointed to a July 8th statement which said, "The president has established the highest ethical standards of any administration in American history, and his family's commitment to rigorous processes like this is a prime example."

Asked Thursday about Biden attending the upcoming art shows with potential buyers, Psaki said, "[Biden]'s not going to have any conversations related to the selling of art. That will be left to the gallerist as was outlined in the agreement that we announced just a few weeks ago.""We believe this is reasonable a system that has been established that allows for Hunter Biden to work within his profession within appropriate safeguards, so he is not going to discuss anything related to the selling of his art," she added. 

But that raises the question: how would the public ever know what was discussed? There is no known enforcement mechanism or disclosure requirement embedded in the ethics deal. Conversations with potential buyers at the showings would almost certainly stay private.   

Psaki was also asked on Thursday if the secret buyer's agreement between Biden and the gallerist was in writing and could be shared publicly. "I can check and see if there is more detail," Psaki replied.  

Chris Clark, an attorney for Hunter Biden, did not respond to a request for comment.


Video: Hunter Biden expected to meet with prospective art buyers, sparking concerns from some government ethics experts (CBS News)

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Under the agreement that was blessed by the White House, only the gallery owner, Georges Berges, would initially know the buyer's identity or purchase price. However, buyers could choose to make themselves known. It would also be up to Berges to reject suspect buyers or inflated bids. 

Walter Shaub, former head of the Office of Government Ethics during the Obama administration, said that arrangement amounts to the White House "outsourcing government ethics" to the art gallery owner. 

And he said that Hunter Biden's attendance at the art shows increases the ethical concerns. 

"Is Hunter Biden going to walk around the art show with a blindfold on?" said Shaub. "It just goes to show you the focus isn't on government ethics. It's just showing the child of a president can cash in on the presidency."

Berges has previously advocated for relationships between artists and art collectors in a 2015 promotional video.

"I feel that the relationship between artist and collector – it used to be a very unified relationship where it was very personal...The relationship today tends to be a little bit colder, more corporate  – there's less interaction between the artist, the collector and the gallerist. In fact, very few collectors now even meet the artist," Berges said in the video.

"My goal is to really establish a gallery that has a global reach with affiliates all over the world working together to really re-establish that relationship that I think is important," Berges added. 

Davis said Biden and Berges have known each other for two years.  According to Artnet, Biden has no formal artistic training and has only begun working as an artist full time in recent years. Berges opened the gallery in 2015 and its website features 20 artists.

"He really wants to help Hunter and for people to recognize his talent," Davis said. "So you know, I think it's all on the up and up."

In 2016, Berges was sued by an investor in his gallery, Ingrid Arneberg, for fraud and breach of contract. The lawsuit alleged that Arneberg, an artist herself, had invested $500,000 for the purpose of gallery expansion and that Berges deposited it in his personal bank account to cover expenses. Berges countersued for $4.5 million, claiming, among other things, defamation and breach of fiduciary duty.  The two settled in 2018 and terms were not disclosed.  

An attorney for Arneberg did not reply to a request for comment.

In May 1998, Berges, then a 23-year old college student, was arrested in California and charged with assault with a deadly weapon and "terrorist threats," according to public records from the Santa Cruz Police Department. 

Few details of the incident are available in public records but a report provided by the police department states, "Officers responded to a report of a fight inside the residence involving one suspect with a knife. No injuries reported." Davis said Berges got into an altercation with a roommate.

Court records indicate Berges was sentenced to three years' probation, but Davis said the felony charges were knocked down to misdemeanors and eventually dismissed. Santa Cruz County officials declined to clarify the outcome of the case. Berges never served probation, Davis said, downplaying the incident.

Four months after the arrest, Berges filed for personal bankruptcy. His creditors included credit card companies, a bank, a jeweler and furniture retailer Pier One Imports, according to federal court records. Bankruptcy proceedings ended three months later.

"He was a kid and he had credit card debt," Davis said.

Since the art deal agreement became public when it was reported by the Washington Post, CBS News has requested interviews with Hunter Biden and Berges. Davis said the gallery would only respond to questions about Biden's artwork and not the ethics agreement. 

Berges declined a subsequent interview request Wednesday.

CBS News attempted to reach out to several former gallery employees to learn more about Berges and gallery operations. Davis called a CBS News reporter to say that was not "above board." 

Rachel Bailey, Nancy Cordes and Steven Portnoy contributed to this story. 

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