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Holocaust survivor sues OU to keep painting stolen by Nazis in France

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“Bergère rentrant des moutons (Shepherdess Bringing in Sheep)”

Léone Meyer is suing OU for the painting “Bergère rentrant des moutons (Shepherdess Bringing in Sheep)” by French impressionist Camille Pissarro. Before World War II, Meyer’s family owned the painting. During the war it was stolen by Nazis. Now the painting hangs in the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art, where it was donated by its last owners Aaron and Clara Weitzenhoffer. OU won’t give the painting back to Meyer until the matter’s been decided in court.

A Holocaust survivor is once again suing OU in an effort to ensure a 19th-century French painting can remain on display in France for perpetuity.

Léone Meyer, the only Holocaust survivor of her family, according to documents provided by a source familiar with the case, issued a summons to court in October to the university, hoping to revisit a 2016 settlement in which OU and the Musée d'Orsay in Paris agreed to display the art on a rotating basis. According to the summons documents, Meyer has expressed concern for the potential damage that could befall the piece during travel between Europe and the U.S. 

The hearing is set for 10:30 a.m. Dec. 8 in the Paris District Court. 

Meyer was born in Paris in 1939, and her parents were deported to the Auschwitz concentration camp “when she was a very young child,” according to the  documents. She was later adopted by a family that had previously possessed a “significant impressionist art collection,” according to the summons. 

During the occupation of France by Nazi forces, many paintings and other artworks were looted and removed from the country. Meyer’s adoptive family was previously in possession of a 19th-century painting, "La Bergere rentrant des moutons," which was removed from France during the war and was eventually possessed by the Weitzenhoffer family, according to the summons documents. 

Meyers’ adoptive father attempted to reclaim the painting after discovering it had been moved to Switzerland in 1951, but a 1953 decision by a Swiss judge dismissed her father’s attempt to recover the art due to the “five-year statute of limitations” which had elapsed, according to the summons documents. The painting was next spotted in the U.S. in 1956, where it came into the possession of the Weitzenhoffer family and was later donated to OU in 2000.

Several U.S. and international laws surround how museums should approach ownership and restitution of Nazi-looted artwork. The Washington Conference Principles on Nazi-Confiscated Art of 1998 states “If the pre-War owners of art that is found to have been confiscated by the Nazis and not subsequently restituted, or their heirs, can be identified, steps should be taken expeditiously to achieve a just and fair solution,” though it does not necessitate outright return of the piece.

The 2009 Terezin Declaration uses similar language, encouraging “best practices” in the restitution of looted cultural property to Jewish communities, former owners and their heirs.

According to the summons documents, Meyers’ legal representatives said OU had not “(carried) out any provenance research” on the painting, which had previously been listed in the Register of Looted Goods.

In the original litigation in 2013, OU legal representatives argued under the principle of res judicata and collateral estoppel, as well as “international law,” the university was the rightful owner of the painting, according to the 2016 summons documents. The university also argued Meyer “failed to make a claim for breach of contract” and the action was “time-barred under the two-year statute of limitations” in Oklahoma, according to the 2016 summons documents.

In the February 2016 settlement, the Meyer family was recognized as possessing the ownership title over the painting, according to the summons documents, but the Weitzenhoffer family’s purchase and donation of the piece were recognized as being made in good faith. The settlement arranged for the art to be displayed on rotation at the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art and the Musée d'Orsay.

Later in 2016, the U.S. Congress passed the Holocaust Expropriated Art Recovery Act, which seeks to “ensure that claims to artwork and other property stolen or misappropriated by the Nazis are not unfairly barred by statutes of limitations but are resolved in a just and fair manner.” 

According to the summons documents, Meyer is also using French Ordinance No. 45-770 of April 21, 1945, to attempt to reclaim the painting. The ordinance reads that both the original purchaser and “all successive purchasers” of art that was looted from France by Nazi Germany are considered to be possessors in bad faith “with regards” to the dispossessed owner.

Ron Soffer, Meyer’s attorney, said in an email it’s “regrettable that OU insists” on an approach that will separate Meyer from a painting stolen from her family by the Nazis. 

“It is equally disappointing that to do so the University is relying on a reprehensible 1950s Swiss Court ruling, which actually faulted Meyer’s father, a Holocaust survivor, for not coming forward during the war to assert ownership,” Soffer said in the email. “Further, the University cites in its attempt to avoid doing the right thing a provenance of good faith owners, when a very recent landmark French legal ruling established decisively that any owners of art stolen in the Holocaust are viewed as not having any good faith ownership rights.” 

Soffer said in the email legal procedure should not get in the way of morals. 

"Other museums around the world have willingly done the right thing in similar circumstances and returned stolen works,” Soffer said in the statement. “It is incomprehensible that the University is not willing to do the same, and is instead choosing to fight a Holocaust survivor for what is rightfully hers."

Lynn Nicholas, art restitution expert and author of The Rape of Europa — a book detailing the circumstances behind various art pieces which were looted during World War Two — said she “couldn’t understand” why Meyer was now seeking to change the agreed-upon settlement.

“Everybody thought it was the perfect restitution agreement that could be made,” Nicholas said. “There were a number of good-faith buyers who gave it to the museum … but I suppose it is her property.”

Nicholas said she did not feel Meyer’s concerns for the safety of the piece during its rotation travels were significant enough to warrant a change to the settlement.

“I don’t believe it’s an ultra-fragile painting, it’s not an ancient painting on panels or something,” Nicholas said. “In these days, (paintings) travel in air-conditioned cargo holds, and they’re very tightly packed, and certainly the people at the Musée d'Orsay are leading experts in the world.”

OU issued a statement on Nov. 3, urging both U.S. and French courts to uphold the settlement.

“The written and signed mutual agreement was ratified by U.S. and French courts and ensured Camille Pisarro’s ‘Shepherdess Bringing in Sheep’ painting would be perpetually and publicly exhibited on a three-year rotating schedule,” the statement read. “The French claimant Léone Meyer now inexplicably seeks to break the settlement agreement by asking a French court to stop the rotation schedule, preventing the painting’s return to Oklahoma in 2021.”

The statement also read the agreed-upon settlement fell well within the standards of the Washington Principles and the guidelines of the American Alliance of Museums.

“The settlement agreement was heralded as a model by arts and cultural leaders worldwide because it is consistent with the Washington Principles and the Alliance of American Museums Guidelines, which the parties followed to mutually resolve the modern-day art ownership claim,” the statement read. “As the AAM Guidelines counsel, in achieving the Pissarro settlement, the parties shared the historical provenance research, balanced the goals of addressing modern-day claims with the present-day owner’s good faith, and thus, reached a resolution acknowledged as fair and just.”

OU President Joseph Harroz and OU Foundation President Guy Patton issued a joint statement.

“This misguided attempt to undo the U.S.-French museum-sharing agreement should be alarming to the cultural and international community,” the joint statement read. “We are confident that the U.S. and French courts will enforce the settlement agreement – which they have previously approved – as it ensures the painting’s history and beauty will continue to be shared with the people of both Oklahoma and France.”

According to Soffer’s email, OU has imposed “burdensome and draconian” travel conditions, and Meyer will not “back down or be threatened” by OU’s legal actions against her. 

“She … believes the courts in Oklahoma will fully understand her position and will not interfere with the right of a French citizen to seek redress pursuant to French law,” Soffer said in the email. “A French judge has already ordered an emergency hearing on the matter. What happened during the occupation of France by the Nazi regime is for the French courts to resolve. The interests of the Republic of France in resolving these matters supersedes that of any other country and jurisdiction.”

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