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A New York art dealer has been ordered to pay an Alabama couple $1 million plus interest after reneging on an agreement to purchase a painting by Edward Degas for an “undisclosed principal.” Chief Judge Michael B. Mukasey of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York granted summary judgment to Robert S. Weil and Jean K. Weil and took the unusual step of ordering Mark Murray to complete the purchase of Degas’ work “Aux Courses.” “[N]o reasonable jury could find that Murray did not accept the Degas in light of the undisputed fact that he inspected the Degas on at least two occasions, signed the written agreement, and continued to retain possession of the Degas,” Mukasey said in Weil v. Murray, 98 Civ. 7163. Murray and fellow dealer Ian Peck own adjacent galleries at 980 Madison Avenue. Mr. and Mrs. Weil invited Murray to travel to their Montgomery, Ala., home in October 1997 to view their art collection. One month later, Murray called the Weils and said he had a potential, unnamed buyer for the painting — a buyer Murray later claimed was Peck. In November of that year, the director of Murray’s gallery executed an agreement with the Weils in which the couple consigned the painting to Murray’s gallery “for private inspection in New York for a period of a week,” to be extended “only with the express permission of the consignor.” Murray later claimed that Peck agreed to purchase the painting for $1.2 million with Murray serving as a broker for the transaction. After negotiations, Murray and Weil signed an agreement to sell the painting for $1 million. Murray was listed as the named buyer, but with the understanding that the ultimate buyer was an “undisclosed principal.” The money was never paid, and Murray kept the painting in his gallery until March 25, 1998, when Mr. Weil demanded its return. It was also in March that Mr. Weil learned that Murray and Peck had taken the painting to an art conservator who was retained to correct deterioration. When the Weils sued for specific performance on the contract and sought summary judgment, Murray claimed the contract was “ambiguous and hopelessly self-contradictory.” He pointed to language that referred to the undisclosed principal as “the eventual buyer,” and the “ultimate buyer.” He also noted another provision that obligated him to disclose the buyer’s identity if full payment was not received by Dec. 8, 1997. “Based on this language, Murray advocates a reading of the contract that would make him neither the buyer, nor an agent for the partially disclosed principal, but rather an intermediary whose contractual obligation was to reveal the identity of the undisclosed principal,” Judge Mukasey said. “The written contract, though not artful, is unambiguous. Mark Murray agreed to buy the Degas for $1 million.” Murray also had a reasonable time in which to inspect the painting, the judge said. “Moreover, it is undisputed that, without Weil’s consent, Murray, at a minimum, permitted the painting to be cleaned and restored in late November or early December,” wrote Mukasey. “Murray’s participation in the alteration of the painting, regardless of whether such alteration increased its value, was an act inconsistent with plaintiffs’ ownership.” With incidental damages and interest, Mukasey said, the Weils will recover nearly $1.3 million. Mukasey also denied Peck’s motion for summary judgment on all of the Weils’ claims against him. While Peck claimed he was not a party to the contract, the judge said there was a genuine issue of material fact as to whether Murray was “acting as Peck’s agent when he signed the contract to buy the Degas.” Peter R. Stern and Kenneth J. Applebaum, of Berger Stern & Webb, represented the Weils. Jeffrey L. Braun and Lauren Reiter Brody, of Rosenman & Colin, represented Peck. Frederick T. Davis, Jeremy G. Epstein and John J. Master III, of Shearman & Sterling, represented Murray.

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