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

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

Article content

Impressionist artist Camille Pissarro’s tiny La Bergère Rentrant des Moutons (Shepherdess Bringing in Sheep) has for years 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 owners.

When they fled France during the Second World War, wealthy Parisians Raoul and Yvonne Meyer entrusted their art to their bank, but in 1941 Nazi officers managed to loot the lot. Upon returning to Europe in 1945, Raoul was able to recover much of his vast collection, says. However, by the time he tracked down La Bergère in Geneva in 1951, the statute of limitations to claim it had expired and a Swiss court ruled in favour of the work’s post-war owners.

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


Story continues below
This advertisement has not loaded yet, but your article continues below.

Article content

La Bergère Rentrant des Moutons had been one of the 33 works gifted to the university in 2000 upon the death of Clara Weitzenhoffer, whose husband, oil tycoon Aaron Weitzenhoffer, had 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, the Meyers’ daughter, Léone-Noëlle, sued the university for 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 earlier ownership, saying the school did not want to keep any items it did not legitimately own but neither did it want to just give away gifts it had received to anyone who claimed them.

However, prior to that statement, he had said that “the highly regarded Jewish family from Oklahoma who gave the painting to us also had friends and family members endangered at the time of the Holocaust. They are deeply opposed, as is the University, to the theft of art by the Nazis.”

The University said that the paintings would be returned only on the orders of the court.

The small La Bergère Rentrant des Moutons — Shepherdess Bringing in Sheep (centre).
The small La Bergère Rentrant des Moutons — Shepherdess Bringing in Sheep (centre). Photo by Courtesy Musée d'Orsay

At that time, Paul Wesselhoft, a Republican state representative from Oklahoma City, urged university officials to repatriate the painting by saying that keeping it even after the disclosure of its rightful owners causes humiliation for the state and the school.

“It is the right and moral thing to do for OU to return this painting to the Jewish family from which the Nazis plundered it,” he said. “Keeping this painting is an embarrassment. I’m ashamed that it’s in the museum.”


Story continues below
This advertisement has not loaded yet, but your article continues below.

Article content

Though it was returned to her, Meyer preferred to have La Bergère seen by the public rather than hang it in her home. According to her lawyer, Ron Soffer, the heiress signed a three-way deal in 2016 stipulating that she and the Musée d’Orsay in Paris would share possession of the painting; that it could not be sold, exchanged or donated without approval from both sides; and that the piece would rotate between the Oklahoma museum and a French art gallery every three years.

Having been shown in the d’Orsay since it was essentially repatriated, the painting is now due to be returned to the U.S. in July for its first three-year stint.

Meyer, however, has had a change of heart and has decided she wants it in France permanently.

I'm ashamed that it's in the museum

Oklahoma City Republican Paul Wesselhoft in 2014

Her lawyer, Soffer, told the BBC that “because (the Americans) were not willing to restitute it, Meyer found herself with a substantial risk of not seeing the painting ever return to France.” The 2016 agreement, he said, “was a solution imposed by Oklahoma. It goes from Oklahoma to a French museum and then back to Oklahoma. Meyer does not even have the ability to touch it.”

The costly requirement to ship it to the U.S. every three years was not optimal for the d’Orsay, but it will soon begin packing up the artwork for its Oklahoma rotation.

The Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany has also criticized the university, saying that rotating the painting “by definition is not restitution.”

She may not able to keep it solely in France, but the deal does allow the 81-year-old heiress to donate the painting to a French art institution before her death. If she does not, Soffer says, the painting “shall be permanently transferred… to the U.S.’s Art in Embassies program.”


Story continues below
This advertisement has not loaded yet, but your article continues below.

Article content

Limited by the deal she herself signed, Meyer had few options to prevent La Bergère being removed from France. As a last resort, she asked the French courts to stop it being taken. That verdict is expected next month.

She has forfeited whatever sympathy she might otherwise have been entitled to

Oklahoma District Court judgment

Meanwhile, the district court in Oklahoma ruled that with her lawsuit Meyer was in contempt of the 2016 deal, saying she “has largely forfeited whatever sympathy she might otherwise have been entitled to,” adding in its judgment, according to the BBC website, that she “entered into a rigorously negotiated settlement agreement… then violated that settlement agreement when it no longer suited her purposes.”

And to add injury to the insult, the court imposed a daily fine on her — Soffer says it’s US$2,500 a day, in addition to legal fees — until she drops the French case.

He suggests there’s a basic principle of ethics at hand.

“The important question is to ask why Oklahoma has been fighting for the past decade not to restitute a painting that they do not contest is of dubious origin, that they do not contest was taken from Meyer’s adopted father by the Nazis?” Soffer told

More On This Topic

  1. This May 12, 2005 file photo shows an unidentified visitor viewing the Impressionist painting called

    Madrid museum rightful owners of Nazi-looted painting, not Jewish woman who surrendered it, says L.A. judge

  2. In this file photo dated Feb. 19, 1937, German Chancellor Adolf Hitler, left, discusses plans for building a convention hall at Nuremberg with Lord Mayor Willy Liebel, centre, and Prof. Albert Speer, right, at Nuremberg, Germany. Hilde Schramm inherited several paintings collected by her father, Hitler'’s chief architect and Armaments Minister Albert Speer, but she didn'’t want them.

    Reinvented legacy: How paintings robbed by the Nazis are funding a foundation for Jews

The arrangement had widely been seen as a fair solution to the question of who gets to keep Nazi-looted art — the buyers who purchased in good faith from a legitimate source, the work’s original owners or heirs, or the institutions that either bought or were gifted the artwork. As the BBC noted, different courts and different countries have applied different rules.


Story continues below
This advertisement has not loaded yet, but your article continues below.

Article content

The Oklahoma University Foundation at first saw Meyer’s arrangement as “a model for how to fairly and justly settle modern day art restitution cases,” but recently told the BBC that “it is disappointing that she is actively working to renege on the agreement lauded by the international arts world.”

But because the Jones museum has not denied that the painting was looted by the Nazis, Soffer said “we frankly do not understand how Oklahoma could possibly justify to themselves and to their students the notion of getting an 81-year-old Holocaust survivor sanctioned in order not to yield a painting that they know belongs (in France).”

News Near Vulcan

This Week in Flyers