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National museum groups back OU in litigation over Pissarro painting looted by Nazis during World War Two

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

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 rotates between Oklahoma and France, and is scheduled to return to the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art in 2021.

Editor's note: This post was updated at 1:12 p.m. Nov. 19 to include a response from Meyer's attorney and statement from the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, Inc.

After two art museum groups in the United States issued statements supporting OU in a legal dispute over the display rights of a painting looted during World War Two, an international group issued a statement opposing the university's claims to the art.

Wesley Fisher, director of research for the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany and the World Jewish Restitution Organization, decried the university's settlement as only a half-hearted attempt at restitution to the painting's familial heir, Holocaust survivor Léone Meyer.

"As we understand it, the University of Oklahoma has not restituted the Pissarro painting to (Meyer), instead imposing a contractual arrangement pursuant to which the painting will be subjected to a perpetual rotating possession regime between the Musée d'Orsay and the Fred Jones Jr. Museum," Fisher wrote in the statement, "an arrangement rejected by the French museum due to its onerous conditions and the risk to the painting itself."

Fisher urged the university to reinforce the precedent of the U.S. returning art looted by Nazis to its original owners.

"The United States has a long tradition of doing the right thing and returning works of art that the Nazis and their allies stole to the original owners and/or their heirs," Fisher wrote. "The University of Oklahoma should do the same."

Meyer's attorney, Ron Soffer, criticized the American Alliance of Museums for supporting the university and the original settlement due to the university's failure to do "due diligence" when accepting the art originally.

"We are disappointed that the Alliance of American Museums has acceded to set aside its own code of ethics which obligates its members to perform due diligence when receiving gifts of art," Soffer said. "We believe under this code, the gift of the Pissarro work should never have been accepted by the university and the Fred Jones Jr. Museum."

Soffer added the organization should support the full return of the painting in the interest of justice for those whose property was taken from them decades ago.

"We would hope any organization claiming to be an authority on policies regarding Nazi-stolen works would support true restitution rather than accepting agreements that do not give the rightful owners the full rights and privileges they deserve," Soffer said.

Two of the nation’s leading art museum groups showed support for OU’s art sharing settlement agreement with a museum in France regarding a painting looted by Nazis, according to a Monday press release.

The painting by Camille Pissarro, “Shepherdess Bringing in Sheep,” has been on display in the Paris Musée d'Orsay for four years and is scheduled to return to the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art in 2021.

Leone Meyer, a French claimant and Holocaust survivor whose family originally owned the painting before it was looted by Nazi forces during World War Two, helped lead the settlement discussion and is now trying to alter the settlement to keep the painting in France in perpetuity, according to the release.

“At Ms. Meyer’s and the (OU) Foundation’s joint request, the U.S. federal court entered an order confirming the settlement, and the courts of France thereafter entered an order likewise recognizing it as final and non-appealable,” Guy Patton, OU Foundation president and CEO, and OU President Joseph Harroz said in a joint statement. “The agreement was heralded as a first-of-its-kind U.S.-France international art sharing agreement.”

The American Alliance of Museums and the Association of Art Museum Directors sent a letter to the Fred Jones Jr Museum of Art to express their support for the university’s fight to keep the settlement.

“We hope that the current matter can be resolved quickly as in accordance with the settlement agreement so that not only will the painting be on view as contemplated, but, more important to us, that future potential consensual resolutions to Nazi-era claims will not be negatively affected by the current proceedings,” AAM President Laura Lott and AAMD President Brent Benjamin said in their joint letter.

The statement from Patton and Harroz said they are prepared to take this settlement to court.

“We are confident that the U.S. and French courts will agree that in both Oklahoma and France, we must honor the past and respect mutual bona fide agreements we have previously reached with each other,” Patton and Harroz said in the statement. “We are ready to challenge this unwarranted threat in U.S. and French courts.”

 

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