The University of Oklahoma has agreed to return a French Impressionist painting that was stolen by Nazis to a woman whose parents were murdered at Auschwitz.
The agreement, which ensures that the painting will be displayed to the public in museums in both France and Oklahoma, ends a long, drawn-out and well-publicized dispute over the painting.
That dispute put the university in the uncomfortable position of resisting the claims of a Holocaust survivor, but the resolution acknowledges that the painting was bought, donated to the university and displayed in good faith.
The oil painting by Camille Pissarro from 1886, “La bergère rentrant des moutons,” (“Shepherdess Bringing in Sheep”) was looted from a bank vault in 1941 by Nazi forces during the German occupation of France, along with the rest of the collection of Raoul Meyer, a well-known French businessman.
After the war, Meyer and his wife, who were childless, adopted a little girl from an orphanage whose family had been killed in a Nazi concentration camp. Leone Meyer was 7.
And they began to reclaim their art collection. Most of it was returned soon after the war, but a half-dozen pieces had been sold and were difficult to track, according to Pierre Ciric, an attorney representing their daughter, Leone Meyer, who continued their search after her parents’ deaths.
The Pissarro was hard to find; it had gone from France to Switzerland to the Netherlands to New York to California to Oklahoma, Ciric said. “That’s fairly typical” for Impressionist works and those in other styles which Nazis did not favor, which were exchanged after looting, sold and resold.
Aaron and Clara Weitzenhoffer bought the work in the 1950s from a New York gallery.
The shepherdess painting, along with 32 other Impressionist paintings, was a gift to OU’s Fred Jones Jr. Museum in 2000 from the estate of Clara Weitzenhoffer. The couple were longtime supporters of the university.
In a statement last summer, university officials said the couple “undoubtedly purchased the painting in good faith from a reputable art dealer” and “there has been no evidence — or even a suggestion — that the family or the OU Foundation were somehow involved in or complicit with any inappropriate activity.” Ciric said at the time that the university had a responsibility to research the provenance of the painting.
Meyer sued in 2013.
Oklahoma state Rep. Paul Wesselhoft called it “a moral outrage” this summer, and a law was passed in the state legislature requiring the university to research the painting’s history. He did not immediately respond to a request for comment Wednesday.
The agreement between Meyer, OU and the OU Foundation grants title to Meyer. The painting will be displayed at a museum in France for five years, and then will rotate between an institution (or institutions) in France and OU’s museum. After her death, it will be donated to a French museum.
Such an agreement is relatively rare in such cases, Ciric said; often they are so emotionally charged that it’s difficult to mediate a solution.
Thaddeus Stauber, who represented OU and the OU Foundation, did not immediately respond to a request for comment Wednesday.
In a written statement, David Boren, the president of OU, said, “The University is pleased that a constructive agreement has been reached. The rotating display of the work meets the University’s long-stated goal to ensure the painting remains available to Oklahomans and that it continues to be available for educational purposes.
“We are glad that the agreement recognizes the good faith and generosity of the Weitzenhoffer family, which has been one of the most generous donors in the University’s history. Likewise, we are pleased to have found a way to reach an arrangement agreeable to the Meyer family.”
This is the first artwork the family has been able to claim since the early years after the war, Ciric said.
“She’s very pleased,” he said of Meyer, now 76, who lives in Paris. “She’s grateful for the public reaction in Oklahoma, which was extremely positive and supportive. The legislature, the students supported her efforts, and she was very grateful for that.”
She continues to search for the other missing pieces of her parents’ collection, Ciric said. “Leone Meyer is not stopping.”