Miracle or Providence? Oklahoma House unanimously encourages OU to return ‘Shepherdess’

OKLAHOMA CITY – As the end of the 2015 legislative session neared there were a few bills still under consideration as the House of Representatives pressed to finish its business and adjourn “sine die.”

On the floor of the chamber in the state Capitol, Speaker of the House Jeffrey Hickman, R-Fairview, approached state Rep. Paul Wesselhoft, R-Moore.

They sat together for a few minutes, discussing the session and remaining issues of concern. Hickman asked to read a copy of Wesselhoft’s House Resolution 1026, which had not yet been considered.

Perhaps Hickman had read H.R. 1026 previously, but in the crush of a frantic session – largely dominated by concerns over comparatively tight state finances – it had not advanced on the agenda.
Hickman studied the text carefully for a time. After finishing, Wesselhoft reports the Speaker turned to him and said, “We need to run this.”

Moments later, by unanimous voice vote, the House approved H.R. 1026. Democratic Leader Scott Inman of Del City had encouraged his members not to object, procedurally, to pulling the measure to the floor for consideration, Capitol sources have said.

The resolution directs the Fred Jones Jr. Art Museum at the University of Oklahoma in Norman to engage in “provenance research” (looking into the chronology of the ownership and custody of an object) concerning “Shepherdess Bringing in the Sheep,” an Impressionist painting by Camille Pissaso. Leone Meyer, heir of the family that owned the painting, has long sought return of the piece stolen from her family by Nazis in France during World War II.

Rep. Wesselhoft, who briefed CapitolBeatOK on the resolution’s passage shortly after the House adjourned Friday evening, said in a past statement, “I have worked tirelessly to make sure my colleagues understand the story behind the painting.”

The measure notes that “during the Nazi era, 1933 through 1945, as a result of actions taken by the Nazis and their collaborators in furtherance of the Holocaust, objects were acquired through theft, confiscation, coercive transfer and other methods of wrongful expropriation.”

Museums, Wesselhoft’s resolution declares, “are not only required to act legally but also ethically and morally, as well as take affirmative steps to maintain integrity so as to warrant public confidence.”

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.”

The resolution encourages 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 Pissaro painting has a “back story” similar to that of a masterful work at the center of “Woman in Gold,” an acclaimed motion picture starring Helen Mirren and Ryan Reynolds. In that matter, a California woman was able to regain custody of the painting Nazis stole from her family in Austria after the takeover of that country by the German Army in the 1930s. 

Friday evening, among those aware of the House chamber’s subdued but definitive action on H.R. 1026, a gentle debate was held during discussion of passage. One camp considered passed a “miracle,” but another called it a gift from “Providence.”

A miracle is a suspension of the rules of nature, such as a person’s resurrection from the dead, or instantaneous cure of a cancer or of a crippling disability.

On the other hand, an act of Providence is a matter of something beyond ourselves, arranging for women and men to collaborate, even if unknowingly, in a righteous deed.

As this story was written, debate on the matter had reached no definitive conclusion. The precise origins of this particular blessing or blessings will likely remain a matter of informed conjecture.

Still, in the course of human events, in this particular set of events, it seems that “Providence” might serve as the best source of understanding.