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OU seeks millions in legal fines, heiress of Nazi-looted Pissarro painting held in contempt of U.S. court in effort to alter 2016 settlement

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Max Weitzenhoffer

Former regent Max Weitzenhoffer at the Board of Regents meeting Jan. 28, 2016. Weitzenhoffer originally donated the painting "Shepherdess bringing in sheep" in 2000.

OU is seeking to levy millions in legal fines from its courtroom opponent in ongoing litigation to uphold a 2016 settlement establishing the scheduled rotation of a looted painting between France and the university for display.

The university and the painting’s heiress, Léone Meyer — a Holocaust survivor who was adopted into the Jewish family that had the painting looted from its home by Nazi forces — reached a settlement in 2016 stipulating the painting would rotate between OU’s Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art and the Musée d'Orsay in Paris. 

Meyer reopened litigation in November 2020. According to a statement from Meyer’s attorney Ron Soffer, Meyer sued once again due to the Musée d'Orsay’s refusal to accept the painting as a gift, a condition of the original settlement, due to “French law which prohibits perpetual agreements” like the rotation of the painting between OU and France agreed to in the 2016 settlement. 

Article 1210 of the French Civil Code, translated here, states “perpetual undertakings are prohibited,” and either party to such an agreement “may put an end to such an undertaking under the conditions provided (in the code) for contracts of indefinite duration.”

On Jan. 4, the United States District Court for the Western District of Oklahoma requested the university submit recommended sanctions against Meyer after she failed to comply with a cease and desist order it issued, demanding she end her litigation in the French courts.

The university submitted its recommended sanctions for holding Meyer in contempt of the court Jan. 15, including a one-time fine of $3.65 million should she not cease litigation within three days of the submission and further per diem fines between $25,000 and $100,000 should Meyer not end her litigation within three days after payment of the original fine. More than a month later, the litigation is still ongoing.

The fines were calculated by estimating Meyer’s net worth from “publicly available sources,” according to a document from the Western District Court of Oklahoma, which was roughly $731 million, making the suggested one-time fee “equal to one-half of one percent” of Meyer’s estimated wealth. 

Any funds received from the fines beyond what is necessary to compensate for legal fees incurred by the university may be used, if the court deems the use “appropriate,” to “establish scholarships and other financial aid vehicles” to assist students studying “fine arts, the French language and/or studying abroad in France.”

Max Weitzenhoffer, an OU graduate, former regent and Nimax Theatres chairman, donated the “Shepherdess bringing in sheep” painting, finished by Camille Pissarro in 1886, to the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art in 2000. In an interview with The Daily, Weitzenhoffer said he had since paid little attention to the painting or the original court battle that unfolded in 2014.

“I disliked the whole tone, anyway, of what went on. I just kind of removed myself from it,” Weitzenhoffer said. “Let the university decide what they’re going to do with it.”

Weitzenhoffer said he felt the original settlement was an equitable agreement for each party.

“They made an arrangement on the painting, which is perfectly satisfactory … I’m really not interested any longer, it’s been 22 years,” Weitzenhoffer said, noting how long it’d been out of his possession.

Meyer’s adoptive father, Raoul Meyer, attempted to reclaim the painting after discovering it had been moved to Switzerland in 1951, according to summons documents from the Paris District Court. A 1953 decision by a Swiss judge dismissed her father’s attempt to recover the art due to the “five-year statute of limitation,” which had elapsed, according to summons documents from the French court, though the judge did not dispute Raoul Meyer’s original ownership of the painting.

“Following the Swiss court decision, Raoul Meyer once again lost track of the painting, as the possessor quickly disposed of it,” the summons read.

The painting emerged again in 1956 when on exhibit in New York’s David Findlay Gallery. The Weitzenhoffer family purchased the painting from the gallery in 1957, according to the summons document.

“It wasn’t darkly secreted to sources in the United States,” Weitzenhoffer said. “All the years we had the painting, it wasn’t an unknown painting.”

Weitzenhoffer said his mother would never have been interested in the painting were she aware of the piece’s past, since the family is of Jewish descent. 

Weitzenhoffer said he supports the original agreement to rotate the painting between Oklahoma and France as a way to give people who may not have the opportunity to travel to art hubs like New York City or Paris a way to see valuable works.

“This painting being here benefits a lot of people. People in this state, people in this city really enjoy seeing these things when they don’t live in New York, they don’t live in France,” Weitzenhoffer said. “(The Shepherdess piece) is not a great Pissarro — in Paris there are great Pissarros … you’re going to see paintings that knock the spots off that painting … it’s a first-rate picture, but a really great picture it is not.”

His father’s belief that the family’s wealth is a result of the “hard work of the people of Oklahoma” is another reason he wants to give back in what ways he can, including fine art, Weitzenhoffer said. After his grandfather immigrated from Austria and opened a saloon in Lexington prior to Oklahoma’s statehood, Weitzenhoffer’s father generated much of the family’s wealth through the oil industry, he said.

“When we give back, we give back to them. That is why these paintings are here, and that is why I put them here,” Weitzenhoffer said. “They made it possible to give (the paintings). I’d like to see it here (in Oklahoma) back and forth for them.”

Soffer wrote in the statement it was important for Meyer to have the painting on display in its native country.

“It is important to (Meyer) that the painting be exhibited at one of the largest museums in the world, so that millions of visitors can see it, read about its history and remember her parents,” the statement read.

On March 2, the Judicial Court of Paris will hold a hearing on the merits of the case, a hearing on if the painting should be held by another party until the legal dispute is ended and a recently-filed anti-injunction suit from Meyer’s legal team in opposition to the university filing which resulted in the cease and desist order.

Blake Douglas joined the OU Daily news desk in October 2018, and is currently the news managing editor. Previously, Blake has served as an intern reporter, senior news reporter and summer news editor.

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