French Jewish family heir regains title to Nazi-stolen painting of ‘Shepherdess’

OKLAHOMA CITY — The Associated Press reported Tuesday (February 23), that the University of Oklahoma has settled a lawsuit over ownership of a painting Nazis stole from a French Jewish family during World War II.

According to her attorney, Leona Meyer of Paris, heir to the family which owned Camille Pissarro’s painting “Shepherdess Bringing in the Sheep” will secure title to the painting, which now hangs in the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art in Norman, Oklahoma.

The AP’s Sean Murphy reported from the state Capitol the painting will be displayed on a rotating basis at the Fred Jones Museum, and a museum in France.

For several years, state Rep. Paul Wesselhoft, R-Moore, has supported Meyer, whose father originally held the artwork, in her effort to regain control for several years.

Former state Rep. Mike Reynolds, R-Oklahoma City, held the first hearings on the controversy, and joined Wesselhoft at a Capitol press conference to celebrate the settlement, while decrying the long delay in restoration of the art work to Meyer and her family

Last year, Wesselhoft’s resolution calling for restoration of the stolen art to Ms. Meyer passed unanimously, with both Democrats and Republicans joining in support.

When Speaker of the House Jeff Hickman, R-Fairview, discussed the issue with Rep. Wesselhoft late in the 2015 session, he told the south Oklahoma City/Moore legislator, “We need to run this.” House Democratic Leader Scott Inman, D-Del City, encouraged his caucus members not to object, procedurally, to the parliamentary steps needed to expedite approval.

Critics of OU’s previous opposition to restoration of the family’s ownership stressed repeatedly that under ethical provisions honored by museums in the United States and around the world, curators and staff promise to make clear the origins of an art work, “if credible evidence of unlawful appropriation without subsequent restitution is discovered.”

Wesselhoft’s resolution encouraged action by OU President David Boren and the member of the Board of Regents: “If it is determined from provenance research that an object in its collection was unlawfully appropriated during the Nazi era without subsequent restitution, the House of Representatives hereby directs the University of Oklahoma and the Fred Jones, Jr., Museum of Art to resolve the matter in an equitable, appropriate, and mutually agreeable manner, including restitution.”

The outcome is a victory for worldwide advocates who have called for restoration to family heirs of art works methodically stolen from European Jewish families during the reign of terror the National Socialist (“Nazi”) party exercised 1933-45 in Germany and across much of Europe.

Among steps Wesselhoft took to advance this week’s outcome was to host a dinner and screening of “Woman in Gold” at the Warren Theater in Moore.

In that award-winning film, Helen Mirren portrayed Maria Altmann of Vienna, Austria, whose family suffered the Nazi theft of an acclaimed work of art by Gustav Klimt after the fascist Army’s “Anschuluss,” a “peaceful” takeover of a democratic nation.

University of Oklahoma president David Boren has contended Mr. Meyer had opportunities to recover the painting after World War II, “and chose not to do so. Swiss Courts later ruled that the Meyer family no longer had title because of their inaction. Several years later, a prominent Jewish family from Oklahoma, the Weitzenhoffers, purchased the painting in good faith from a reputable art dealer.” 

Ultimately, the Weitzenhoffer family gave the painting to OU.

Over the past two years, as the painting’s “provenance” (trail of ownership or possession) became clear, a chorus of voices in Oklahoma called on President Boren and university officials to recognize Leona Meyer’s ownership and take steps to give substance to that recognition.

In a statement reported Wednesday in The Oklahoman, Boren contended, “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.” 

At Tuesday’s press conference at the Oklahoma Capitol, supporters of the Meyer family referenced the Impressionist painting by its original French name, “La bergere rentrant des moutons.”

OU student Eric Sundby, who joined Reynolds and Wesselhoft at the briefing, said aspects of the settlement were “unprecedented.” Sundby said he was heartened by the settlment, but saddened by the three-plus years of legal maneuvering that came before it.

He told reporters, Ladies and gentlemen, ‘La Bergere‘ is free. ‘La Bergere‘ is returning home. … This victory for the family is also a victory for those murdered during the Holocaust.”

Sundby is a campus leader for the Holocaust Remembrance and Restitution Foundation, Inc., an organization with supporters worldwide, including in Oklahoma.

NOTE: This is adapted from McGuigan’s report posted Tuesday at the website of The City Sentinel newspaper in Oklahoma City.