The Union League Club of Chicago, home to one of the most significant private art collections in the American Midwest, is reportedly planning to liquidate a portion of its collection, including a coveted Monet painting, to alleviate economic strain resulting from the pandemic.
The historic private social club, a 501(c)(7) tax exempt organization, has already made moves to deal with financial fallout from the pandemic. The organization has cut around 75 percent of its full-time staff, from 275 to 67 employees, and issued 10–20 percent salary cuts for management figures and raised $520,000 in member donations.
Politico first reported news of the potential sale. According to that report, Union League president Nancy A. Ross confirmed the board’s approval to sell the Monet. In an email to the club’s members, she wrote, “Key to the board’s decision is the inherent uncertainty of the length of the negative effects of the pandemic on the club’s operations and Chicago’s economy.”
Currently on loan at the the Art Institute’s “Monet in Chicago” exhibition, the Monet first showed at the museum in 1895, at which point its value was $1,500, according to its authenticity record. Club member Judge John Barton Payne acquired the work and later sold it to the Union League for $500. By the late 1950s, it was valued at $20,000, and in 1985, it was said to be worth $900,000. Today, its market value is estimated to be between $5 million and $15 million.
Sally Metzler, the club’s art director, served as a member of a task force overseeing the deaccessioning, according to the Chicago Tribune. Ross said in the letter to the club’s members that, alongside the Monet, a selection of works could potentially go up for sale, including ones by George Inness, Victor Higgins, William Wendt, and the Chicago Imagist Jim Nutt. The club’s general manager, Mark Tunney, told the ARTnews in an interview that plans to sell the Monet and other works are not finalized.
Tunney confirmed that two tranches of works were selected by the task force. The first group comprises five or six works, one of which was pulled out last-minute. The art task force, which includes Metzler as well as current and former board members, “helped to identify the right time, for the right piece, without jeopardizing the integrity of the art collection,” Tunney said.
Tunney confirmed some of the works have already been courted by auction houses for sale. A Jim Nutt painting titled Look This Way (1977) from the club’s holdings, purchased in 2005 by the Union League Club Art Committee, has already been sold. It went for $225,000 with buyer’s premium during Christie’s contemporary art day sale on December 3.
Dr. Metzler serves as the point of contact for the art with auction houses upon selection for sale. She will be tasked with finding “the best opportunity for the best prices available,” said Tunney.
“We have a very active membership and a very active art community in the club,” Tunney said, adding, “This is not an easy decision.” The hope is for the first cache of works to generate enough revenue so that the Monet can stay in Union League hands.
The Monet landscape is considered the gem of the Union League Club’s collection, which comprises more than 700 works by the likes of Donald Judd, Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns, Kerry James Marshall, and Angel Otero, as well as Chicago artists Ed Paschke, William Conger, and Dawoud Bey. The collection has historically been available for public view.
The work’s inclusion in the Monet showcase at the Art Institute of Chicago could increase the work’s value if it comes up for auction.
The sale would not mark the first time the Union Club has deaccessioned art in recent years. In 2015, at Christie’s, the club sold a Félix Ziem landscape for $62,500 to benefit its acquisition fund.