Two former Oklahoma state representatives have called on OU President Joseph Harroz to permanently return a stolen painting to a Holocaust survivor.
French Holocaust survivor Leone Meyer’s painting “Shepherdess Bringing in Sheep” — a work from notable impressionist painter Camille Pissarro — was stolen by Nazis from the home of her father during WWII. The painting is currently housed in France’s Musée d'Orsay, but is scheduled to rotate back to the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art in 2021.
Former Oklahoma state Reps. Mike Reynolds and Paul Wesselhöft issued a press release urging OU to allow Meyer to take full ownership of the painting and keep the piece on display in France for perpetuity.
“The University acknowledged that the painting was stolen by the Nazis from the Meyer estate, but they contend that ‘the statute of limitations’ has run out,” Wesselhöft wrote in the release.
The university has decided to go to court in order to maintain the painting’s rotating display in the university museum after Meyer sued to alter the original settlement reached in 2016, which established a rotation schedule between the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art and the Musée d'Orsay.
“Other universities and museums have voluntarily given back their Nazi-plundered paintings to rightful Holocaust survivors.” Wesselhöft wrote. “OU should do the right and ethical thing and stand as a moral model to their students by volunteering to surrender their poisoned art.”
According to the release, France’s Supreme Court ruled the possessors of Nazi-stolen Jewish art do not have legal ownership and must return the work to the rightful owner without charge. In addition, Reynolds and Wesselhöft expressed their belief that law should be “based on what is just.”
“In the philosophy of law there is a concept called the ‘Rule According to a Higher Law,’ which states, ‘No law may be enforced by government unless it conforms with certain universal principles of fairness, morality, and justice,’” Wesselhöft and Reynolds wrote in the release.
Wesselhöft and Reynolds also expressed concern in the release about the message fighting for ownership of the painting sent to students.
“If OU wins in the court it will be a hollow victory,” Reynolds wrote in the release. “Just imagine the painting back in the university museum as people see it and say ‘Oh … that’s the painting that OU refuses to give back to the Holocaust lady.’ What kind of model is the university setting for their students?”
On Nov. 20, an Oklahoma court ruled in favor of the university and issued Meyer a cease and desist order in her new lawsuit. Several U.S. and international groups have stated their support for both parties, and a hearing in French court is scheduled for Dec. 8.
Wesselhöft and Reynolds wrote the restitution of lost art pieces is one of the last remaining avenues of justice for Holocaust survivors, particularly those who lost much of their families to Nazi extermination camps.
“Survivors must be able to retrieve their Nazi plundered art, which was the centerpiece of their lost home,” Wesselhöft said. “They should expect a higher justice from a moral society. Restitution, this is one meaning left to them.”