Union League Club does not have to sell prized Monet to Australian firm: judge

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Steve Johnson, Chicago Tribune
·3 min read
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The Union League Club will not have to sell its prized Claude Monet painting to an Australian art dealer for $7.2 million after a Cook County judge this week ruled the club had not entered into or reneged on a sales agreement.

Thompson Fine Art Ltd. alleged in February that the private social club, which previously said it is considering sale of the 1872 painting “Apple Trees in Blossom” to cover pandemic-year and other debts, backed out of a deal for the work for that price.

The club denied it, and on Wednesday, Cook County Circuit Court Judge Neil H. Cohen agreed with the club that the suit should end.

“There is no valid and enforceable contract between Thompson and Union League Club for the sale of the Monet painting,” he said in granting the club’s Motion for Judgment.

“We’re obviously very pleased,” said P. Andrew Fleming, who represented the ULC. “We believed we had a very solid defense to the case.”

Adrian Vuckovich, the Chicago lawyer who represented the plaintiff, said that a motion for reconsideration or an appeal can be filed, and “I would suspect something’s going to happen on one of those fronts.”

Thompson is located in Sydney, he said, and it is his understanding that it “acts in the art world as an intermediary” for buyers.

“I’m disappointed, and I don’t agree,” Vuckovich said.

The club did not respond to several requests for comment about the continuing saga of the work its website calls “the jewel of the club’s (art) collection.”

The Tribune and other media reported in December that the Union League board had voted to explore selling the early Monet canvas, the first work by the French Impressionist to be bought by a Chicago institution, because the old-line private social club lacks “the cash resources to survive the contraction of the economy due to the pandemic,” the club president wrote in a letter to members.

The painting is currently on loan to the Art Institute of Chicago, across the Loop from the club, featured in its “Monet and Chicago” exhibition.

It’s hard to say for certain, of course, but the work also known as “Printemps” (Springtime)” would seem a bargain at $7.2 million. One of the artist’s revered latter-day “Haystacks” paintings sold in 2019 at auction for $111 million.

Although the Union League’s is a less-prized, early-period Monet, “it’s a painting that he himself thought of as extraordinary,” Art Institute chief European curator Gloria Groom said, adding that it stands as “one of the most luminous of Monet’s early works.”

Thompson said it thought it had a deal because it responded to a Jan. 12 email from a club executive seeking a “best and final offer” on the painting from Thompson, and it responded by saying it would pay the $7.2 million for it.

The judge, however, ruled that Jan. 12 email “constitutes nothing more than a solicitation of an offer,” and the Jan. 15 response “is clearly an offer, not an acceptance of an offer.”

“In essence,” said Union League attorney Fleming, “the court has found there was no valid contract between the plaintiff and the defendant. It’s a final judgment at this stage.”

The painting is on view in an early gallery of “Monet and Chicago,” extended at the Art Institute through June 14.

sajohnson@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @StevenKJohnson