Editor’s note: The Daily’s interview with Léone Meyer was conducted in French, with the assistance of OU French Professor Peyton Vann. All quotes from Meyer and her attorney were translated from the French transcript of the interview unless stated otherwise.
Holocaust survivor and French businesswoman Léone Meyer spoke in French for the duration of her hour-long interview with The Daily.
Separated by seven hours and over 4,000 miles, OU French professor Peyton Vann translated as Meyer shared the story behind her ongoing legal struggle with OU over the ownership of “Shepherdess Bringing in Sheep,” an 1886 painting by famed impressionist Camille Pissarro looted from Meyer’s father, Raoul Meyer, during World War II.
Meyer spoke in English for the first time during the interview as it drew to a close, sharing a parting message to help Oklahomans understand why she continues the legal fight for her father’s painting after initially coming to a rotating display agreement with OU in 2016.
“All my biological family has been killed. My brother (was) killed at seven years old. My grandmother. My mother. My aunt. Don’t forget that, OK? Try not to forget that,” Meyer said. “When we have a case involving thieves and murderers, we have to make them face their responsibility and we have to do everything to ensure that the paintings are returned to their rightful owners.”
The university has never disputed Meyer’s status as a legitimate inheritor of the painting. In the 2016 settlement establishing the painting’s rotation from France to Oklahoma every three years, all parties agreed that “(Meyer) is entitled to inherit the painting from Raoul Meyer and (his wife) Yvonne Bader under the laws of France.”
The agreement also recognizes the Weitzenhoffer family — whose current patriarch, Max Weitzenhoffer, donated the piece to OU in 2000 — as good-faith owners after acquiring the painting from a New York art gallery in 1957.
Yet questions remain — why has Meyer continued to battle for her family’s piece beyond the original settlement, and why has OU continued to fight full restitution?
Meyer feels the moral implications behind how the university acquired her family’s art justify returning complete ownership of the painting to her, but OU maintains the 2016 agreement should be honored. The university holds the stance so strongly that it has spent $709,254 on legal costs for the suit since November 2020, according to documents submitted to the Western District Court of Oklahoma.
Thaddeus Stauber, a Los Angeles attorney representing the university, has extensive experience in similar cases. The head of Nixon Peabody's Art and Cultural Institution practice, he was also involved in a recent case featuring a Jewish family seeking to reclaim its stolen Pissarro from the Spanish government. Stauber said negotiations to reach the 2016 agreement were extensive to ensure both parties felt their interests were considered.
Stauber said he, OU General Counsel Anil Gollahalli and OU Foundation President Guy Patton flew to New York City to meet with Meyer’s legal representatives and her son during the negotiation of the 2016 agreement.
“We spent a full half day with him, trying to make sure we could all keep the work in the public domain, keep it displayed,” Stauber said. “We really thought it would be important that the work go back to France at some point. But for whatever reason, we couldn't reach a resolution.”
Another negotiation was later held, including the World Jewish Congress’ Commission for Art Recovery. Stauber said the then-head of the commission, Agnes Peresztegi, favored sharing agreement and helped structure the final version.
Under the 2016 agreement, the painting is to be displayed at the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art and a mutually agreed upon “French institution” in perpetuity, remaining on public display. The university pays for the transport of the painting. According to the agreement, Meyer is required to make a trust agreement during her life specifying that upon her death, her obligations under the agreement will be assumed by the recipient institution.
The painting is also displayed alongside a plaque explaining its history and commemorating Meyer's family.
When Meyer agreed to the original agreement, her attorney said she intended to honor it. Meyer later discovered in 2019 that the Musée d'Orsay, despite being willing to house the painting, would not accept an agreement to take responsibility for the perpetual rotating display.
Meyer’s legal team also said she was pressured into finalizing the deal in 2016 for fear of losing her case based on the statute of limitations. The agreement was reached before the passage of the HEAR Act the same year, which altered how the statute of limitations applied to art looted during World War II.
“At the time, it was before the HEAR Act (was passed), so she risked losing because of the statute of limitations, so she had no other choice than to sign (the agreement),” Ron Soffer, Meyer’s Paris-based attorney, said. “The museum refused because there is no museum that would agree to these terms ... That's what (Meyer) discovered when the Orsay Museum explained to her that they couldn't accept a painting that came with a perpetual obligation to rotate between Oklahoma and Paris.”
While French law generally prohibits perpetual arrangements, Stauber said there is an exception wherein parties to the contract can agree otherwise. Stauber stressed both sides were "well aware" of the exception when structuring the agreement.
The general terms used in the agreement should also allow Meyer to seek another institution willing to accept the painting and agreement, Stauber said.
“We gave her the ability to pick French institutions — it doesn't have to be the Musée d'Orsay, doesn't have to be a museum, it could be a university,” Stauber said. “We just needed to make sure it was one that was up to museum standards to display the work, but otherwise, it's her choice.”
Meyer said, during the original negotiation of the 2016 agreement, she stated her intent to donate the piece to the Orsay museum. She also offered to purchase the painting outright before settling on the agreement. The university refused.
The painting has an insurance value of $1.5 million, Stauber said, and has been valued at about $1.8 million.
Another proposed solution, Meyer said, was for her to help fund OU student travel to Paris to see the painting — and the myriad others in French museums.
B. Byron Price, the interim director of the Fred Jones Jr. Art Museum, said the university felt the painting provided a more valuable resource to students when displayed on campus.
“Mrs. Meyer's legal reps indicated she offered the university to pay for OU students to travel and to see the work,” Price said. “We feel that with the exhibit of this artwork within the context of the other works that are in the museum, far more students are able to see and become acquainted with the story, appreciate the work and have it interpreted in a professional way.”
Meyer said it would be more valuable for art students to travel to Paris to see the piece alongside the other great works hanging in French museums.
“I am very disappointed to see that even on the point that they had noted as a top priority: the artistic education of their students, even on that point they refused everything,” Meyer said. “If you really wanted to help the students at the University of Oklahoma to progress in art, especially with regard to the impressionists, I think (accepting student travel funding) would’ve been the right thing to do. There was no other rational way to do it. So I'm very disappointed.”
The painting is scheduled to return to the Fred Jones Museum this July. Stauber said OU received no indication from the Musée d'Orsay the transfer will be affected despite the ongoing litigation.
'A minimum level of decency'
Stauber said sharing agreements for Nazi-looted art are not unprecedented. He was part of a settlement between Yale University and Eric Weinmann after a painting had previously been part of a forced sale of Jewish property in Germany before World War II. The settlement also included a shared ownership agreement, with Yale retaining the painting and the heirs receiving it on a 10-year loan.
Other universities have opted for outright return of looted pieces, however. In 2011, Indiana University returned “The Flagellation of Christ”, which was looted by Allied forces during Berlin's occupation, to a German museum.
Jennifer McComas, the curator of European and American art at Indiana University’s Sidney and Lois Eskenazi Museum of Art, said the painting was donated by IU’s first chancellor and 11th president, Herman B. Wells.
“We didn't have anything in our records, and there didn't seem to be anything on the painting itself that, from our perspective, clearly indicated it was looted,” McComas said. “So I'm not even sure if we would have come to that conclusion through our own research.”
In 2004, McComas said IU received a notification from the Prussian Palaces and Gardens Foundation that it believed the painting was originally housed in Germany’s Jagdschloss Grunewald museum. The university asked the foundation and museum to provide further documentation, and records were sent to the university.
“We certainly did the due diligence to make sure we felt that the German claim was valid,” McComas said. “The fact is they had enough documentation that we really didn't feel there was a question, so this never went to court or anything.”
Although the painting was passed through several legal “good-faith” owners after being looted — Wells purchased the painting in London for his private collection but was given no indication it was stolen — it was returned in 2011 after the museum completed renovations and was prepared to display the painting.
Meyer’s painting has also seen various owners legally considered good-faith purchasers. Meyer’s father had located the painting in Switzerland in the early 1950s, Stauber said. When Raoul Meyer brought a lawsuit against the owner in Swiss courts, the courts found he possessed the painting in good faith.
“(The Swiss owner) wrote (to Raoul Meyer) saying … ‘I know I won the lawsuit, but I’m still willing to work with you, and I will sell you the work essentially for what I paid for it,’” Stauber said.
Raoul Meyer refused, and the painting was eventually sold and made its way to the United States before the Weitzenhoffer family, who donated the painting to OU in 2000, acquired it.
Another recent case in French courts involving yet another Nazi-looted Pissarro ruled American collector Bob Toll must return “The Pea Harvest” to the heirs of Simon Bauer, whose collection was confiscated by Vichy French troops in 1943. In this case, the French court relied on a law passed in 1945 that declares “null and void” any confiscation by occupying forces during the war and considers anyone who purchased the painting afterward an automatic bad-faith possessor.
Soffer, Meyer’s attorney, also represented Toll in “The Pea Harvest” case.
Stauber said the 1945 ordinance would not apply in Meyer’s case since her father was aware of the painting’s location and ownership, but did not pursue reclamation or cite the ordinance in court in the relevant period after the law's passage.
“We, both parties, thought a sharing opportunity was an approach that seemed to be fair, just because it balanced the respective interests and legally, she didn't have a claim, because the case was already resolved,” Stauber said.
From her perspective, McComas said, any documentation that proves the painting was once looted is enough to justify returning the art to its rightful heirs, which factored into Indiana University’s decision.
“If there is clear evidence that a painting was looted during World War II, and in any case from a Jewish collector and a Holocaust victim in particular — and it can also be proven at the painting was not already restituted at some point — then I don't think museums have a right to keep those works,” McComas said.
The French Minister of Culture, Roselyn Bachelot, recently ordered the return of a painting by Gustav Klimt to an Austrian-Jewish family that sold the painting under duress during the war. Meyer said this action should serve as a model for other restitution efforts worldwide.
“I believe that it would be a minimum level of decency to consider that these paintings belong to (the original victims’) families,” Meyer said. “I did not want to keep this painting for myself. This is why I, not the university, proposed at the very beginning to offer the painting to the Orsay Museum. This was not by accident. I thought that this painting belonged to the history of France.”
Future problems of provenance?
After Meyer first sued to reclaim her painting, The Daily reported in 2014 as many as 40 other paintings at the university could have ties to Nazi art looting. No claimants or heirs for these pieces have approached the university for restitution, Price said.
In a 2014 statement to The Daily, the museum wrote it uses “donor-completed and provided” provenance research and will carry out additional research if it is deemed necessary.
“We will continue to monitor these issues and be concerned about them when it's time. We're not involved in any other situations at this time of this nature,” Price said. “We have a lot of Native American objects, and while we don't have any issues presently, when as a museum we publicly display the collection, claims can arise. We think it is critical to our educational mission to be transparent and share the objects with our students and the people of Oklahoma, for whom we hold the collection in public trust."
Potential provenance issues have recently been raised at another OU museum, the Sam Noble Museum of Natural History. Dan Hicks, a professor of contemporary archaeology at Oxford University, included the museum in his recently-released book, “The Brutish Museums.”
Price said the case has not significantly changed how the museum addresses provenance research for its pieces, and it will continue to conduct research under guidelines laid out by the Alliance of American of Museums and American Association of Museum Art Directors.
Stauber said it is important to note as a public institution, the museum is not motivated by “turning profit” and is subject to open records inquiries for its pieces.
Meyer also questioned the origin of the remainder of the paintings in the museum, referring to the careful examination of the other art as a “key point.”
In a previous interview with The Daily, Max Weitzenhoffer said it was important for people outside of art hubs like Paris and New York City to have easy access to high-quality pieces like Pissarro’s works. Meyer said cultural access has never been the primary issue in this painting’s history.
“Art is everywhere. For me, art is not Paris or New York. Neither is it Oklahoma. It is not this or that. For me, art is a beautiful sky, a beautiful sunset. Art is not a painting,” Meyer said. “I don't think the subject is Oklahoma or not Oklahoma. That's not my concern at all. My concern is, was it stolen? Is there a family that was robbed? Does that family have an heir? You’ll find that the heir is me. And does this heiress consider that this painting was stolen from her parents? In these particular circumstances, that is my concern."