Nazi-looted painting in bizarre custody battle pitting U.S. college against elderly French heiress

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An Oklahoma court fined $ 2,500 for every day Léone-Noëlle Meyer fails to return the 1886 Pissarro

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Shari Kulha Detail from Camille Pissarro's La Bergère Rentrant des Moutons (Shepherdess who brings in sheep). Detail from Camille Pissarro’s La Bergère Rentrant des Moutons. Photo from Musée d’Orsay

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Impressionist Camille Pissarro’s tiny La Bergère Rentrant des Moutons has been the subject of a three-way tug-of-war between a museum in France, a university in Oklahoma, and the daughter of its original Jewish owner for years.

When they fled France during the Second World War, the wealthy Parisians Raoul and Yvonne Meyer entrusted their art to their bank, but in 1941 the Nazi officers managed to loot the lot. After his return to Europe in 1945, Raoul was able to restore much of his extensive collection, according to Artnet.com. When he found La Bergère in Geneva in 1951, the limitation period had expired and a Swiss court ruled in favor of the post-war owners of the plant.

The 1886 painting hadn’t been seen by the Meyer family for 70 years, but in 2012 it was in a private art museum at the U.S. college, where it has hung for a decade: The Fred Jones Museum at the University of Oklahoma holds 20,000 art objects including this one of Camille Pissarro, a very influential artist in the Impressionist movement of the late 19th century.

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La Bergère Rentrant des Moutons was one of 33 works donated to the university in 2000 after the death of Clara Weitzenhoffer, whose husband, oil magnate Aaron Weitzenhoffer, bought the piece in good faith from a gallery in New York in 1956.

Léone Meyer at a charity event in Paris in 2015. Léone Meyer at a charity event in Paris in 2015. Photo by Getty File Photo

In 2013, Meyers ‘daughter, Léone-Noëlle, sued the university over the return of her parents’ Pissarro; The settlement transferred ownership of the work to her, and the painting was returned to France from Oklahoma the following year.

In 2014, President David Boren defended the university’s previous holdings, saying the school did not want to keep items it did not legally own, but neither did it want to give away gifts it had received to someone who claimed them.

Prior to making this statement, however, he had said that “the respected Oklahoma Jewish family who gave us the painting also had friends and family members who were at risk at the time of the Holocaust. Like the university, you are deeply against the theft of art by the Nazis. “

The university said the pictures would only be returned by order of the court.

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The little La Bergère Rentrant des Moutons - shepherdess who brings in sheep (center). The little La Bergère Rentrant des Moutons – shepherdess who brings in sheep (center). Photo courtesy of the Musée d’Orsay

At the time, Paul Wesselhoft, a Republican state representative from Oklahoma City, urged university officials to repatriate the painting, saying that keeping it, even after revealing its rightful owners, would humiliate the state and the school .

“It is right and moral for OU to return this painting to the Jewish family from which the Nazis looted it,” he said. “It’s embarrassing to keep this painting. I’m ashamed it’s in the museum. “

Although it was returned to her, Meyer preferred to let La Bergère be seen by the public rather than hang it in her home. According to her attorney Ron Soffer, the heiress signed a three-way contract in 2016 that provided that she and the Musée d’Orsay in Paris would share ownership of the painting. that it could not be sold, exchanged, or donated without the consent of both parties; and that the piece would alternate between the Oklahoma Museum and a French art gallery every three years.

Having shown the painting at d’Orsay since it was essentially repatriated, it is now due to be brought back to the United States in July for its first three-year stint.

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However, Meyer had a change of heart and decided that she wanted him in France permanently.

I am ashamed that it is in the museum

Oklahoma City Republican Paul Wesselhoft in 2014

Her attorney Soffer told the BBC: “Because (the Americans) were unwilling to repay it, Meyer ran a significant risk that the painting would never return to France.” The 2016 agreement is an Oklahoma-imposed solution. It goes from Oklahoma to a French museum and then back to Oklahoma. Meyer doesn’t even have the ability to touch it. “

The costly requirement of shipping it to the US every three years wasn’t optimal for the d’Orsay, but it will soon begin packaging the artwork for the Oklahoma press.

The conference on Jewish material claims against Germany also criticized the university, stating that rotating the painting was “by definition no refund”.

Not only may she be able to keep it in France, but the deal allows the 81-year-old heiress to donate the painting to a French art institution before she dies. If she doesn’t, Soffer says, the painting will “be permanently transferred to the US Art in Embassies program.”

Due to the contract she had signed herself, Meyer had few options to prevent La Bergère from being removed from France. As a last resort, she asked the French courts to stop taking it. This verdict is expected next month.

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She has lost all compassion to which she would otherwise have been entitled

Oklahoma District Court verdict

Meanwhile, the Oklahoma District Court ruled that Meyer’s lawsuit despised the 2016 deal, saying she had “largely forfeited the sympathy she would otherwise have been entitled to,” adding the BBC website in her ruling that you “entered into a rigorously negotiated settlement … then breached that settlement when it no longer served its purposes.”

And to make the insult even worse, the court fined her daily – Soffer says it’s $ 2,500 a day on top of legal fees – until she drops the French case.

He suggests that there is a basic principle of ethics.

“The important question is why Oklahoma has fought for the past decade not to replace a painting that they do not deny, that is of dubious origin and that they do not deny, that was taken by the Nazis from Meyer’s adoptive father.” Soffer said bbc.co.uk.

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  2. In this file photo from February 19, 1937, Federal Chancellor Adolf Hitler (left) discusses plans for the construction of a congress hall in Nuremberg with Mayor Willy Liebel (center) and Prof. Albert Speer (right) in Nuremberg.  Hilde Schramm inherited several paintings that were collected by her father, Hitler's chief architect and armaments minister Albert Speer, but she did not want them.

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The agreement was widely seen as a fair solution to who should keep art looted by the Nazis – the buyers who bought good faith from a legitimate source, the original owners or heirs of the work, or the institutions that either bought it have or were given the work of art. As the BBC noted, different courts and different countries have applied different rules.

The Oklahoma University Foundation initially viewed Meyer’s arrangement as a “model for the fair and equitable settlement of modern art return cases,” but recently told the BBC, “It is disappointing that they are actively working to promote those of the international art world.”

But because the Jones Museum did not deny that the painting was looted by the Nazis, Soffer said, “We honestly don’t understand how Oklahoma could possibly justify itself and its students for the idea of ​​sanctioning an 81-year-old Holocaust survivor so as not to get a painting that they know belongs to (in France). “

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