A visitor to the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art at the University of Oklahoma in Norman, Okla., takes a photograph of a piece called “Shepherdess Bringing in Sheep” by French impressionist artist Camille Pissarro at the museum.
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OKLAHOMA CITY — For more than a decade, the University of Oklahoma has exhibited a piece of Nazi-looted artwork bequeathed to it by the wife of an oil tycoon. But renewed claims by a family that owned the oil painting before World War II has drawn the school’s fundraising arm into a fight it thought was settled in Switzerland more than 60 years ago.
The Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art provides no clue that Camille Pissarro’s “Shepherdess Bringing in Sheep,” an 1886 painting that once belonged to a French Jew, fell into Nazi hands as Germany overran Europe. The school maintains it is the painting’s rightful owner, citing a Swiss court decision from 1953.
“The University does not want to keep any items which it does not legitimately own,” university President David Boren said in a statement. “However, the challenge to the University, as the current custodian of the painting, is to avoid setting a bad precedent that the University will automatically give away other people’s gifts to us to anyone who claims them.”
Leone Meyer, a Holocaust survivor, has sued Boren and the university in New York federal court, seeking the painting’s return. Swiss records show Meyer’s father was a former owner of the painting, but a judge denied a previous claim to the work because her family couldn’t prove post-war owners obtained it in bad faith.
“I find all of this very difficult,” Meyer wrote in an open letter, translated from French to English, to the people of Oklahoma. “But I simply cannot surrender and say: ‘oh well...’ That is out of the question.”
Raoul Meyer fled to the United States after Paris fell, but returned to Europe in 1945 and found the painting missing. He discovered it in Geneva six years later — a year after the statute of limitations ran out — but claimed subsequent owners made a weak attempt to prove the Pissarro wasn’t on a list of known Nazi-looted works.
The Swiss court found that post-war owners had done due diligence and rejected Raoul Meyer’s claim. Aaron Weitzenhoffer, an oil tycoon from Oklahoma, and his wife, Clara, purchased the painting from a New York gallery in 1956. When she died in 2000, she donated more than 30 works worth a total of $50 million to the University of Oklahoma. The Meyer family turned down an offer to buy back the painting in 1953.
“A Jew in France — is featured as an owner.... That should have warned the defendant to exercise caution,” according to a witness at the 1953 trial.
University regent Max Weitzenhoffer, the son of Aaron and Clara Weitzenhoffer, said his parents had no idea the work was tied to Nazis. The 74-year-old also questioned why Leone Meyer is seeking the painting decades later.
The case has drawn the attention of some legislators, who are calling for the university to return it to Meyer.
Rep. Paul Wesselhoft, R-Moore, stood outside of a movie theater in frigid temperatures in early February ahead of showings of “The Monuments Men” to pass out flyers urging people to contact Boren’s office about the issue. The movie tells the story of architects, artists, curators and museum directors who worked to save works of art from the Nazis during World War II.
Wesselhoft says the moral and right thing to do is return the art, and is among several lawmakers who authored a resolution in the Legislature directing the university to do just that.
Cases of artwork tied to Nazis have been popping up for years.
In February, officials with Homeland Security Investigations and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York returned a painting that’d been stolen by Nazis from a Polish museum and being offered for sale in the U.S.
But the artwork isn’t always restored to its original owners. In 2007, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that legendary actress Elizabeth Taylor could keep a Vincent van Gogh worth millions after rejecting claims by descendants of a Jewish woman who fled Germany for South Africa.
Ori Soltes, a co-founder of the Holocaust Art Restitution Project, said it’s not unusual for people to be reluctant to hand over artwork that others claim was stolen by Nazis.
“Someone walks into my museum and says, ‘Oh, my God this painting or this pair of ceremonial candlesticks belonged to my family,’ I’m not just going to say take it. I’m going to have to say can you somehow prove it to me?” said Soltes, a former director of the B’nai B’rith Klutznick National Jewish Museum in Washington D.C.
The difference in the Oklahoma case, Soltes said, is that the evidence is straightforward and the record shows the museum did little research into the collections that came into their possession.
Leone Meyer, who is in her 70s, says getting the Pissarro back would correct some of the injustices done during the Holocaust. Meyer’s biological family was killed at Auschwitz, she said in the letter. She was never captured and was later adopted by Raoul and Yvonne Meyer.
“I am full of admiration for America and am deeply grateful for the sacrifices made by Americans in helping to restore freedom to Europe,” she wrote in the open letter. “Today, I simply ask that you do the right thing. This has nothing to do with money. It is about justice and a duty to remember.”