- Ada, Oklahoma

Local News

May 14, 2014

Family lobbies OU to return looted art

Oklahoma City — The son of an aging Holocaust survivor pleaded with legislators Monday to encourage the University of Oklahoma to return a piece of art that he and his mother claim was stolen by the Nazis during the invasion of Paris.

Leone Meyer, whose entire family was killed at the Auschwitz concentration camp when she was a young girl, has sued OU for the return of Camille Pissarro’s 1886 oil painting, "Shepherdess Bringing In Sheep," also known as “La Bergere,” valued at more than $1 million.

The painting was one of 33 donated to OU from the private collection of Aaron and Clara Weitzenhoffer following her death from cancer in 2000. It hung on a wall of the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art for more than a decade before Meyer’s family realized it was there and asked for its return in December 2012.

Failing health prevented Meyer, who is in her 70s, from attending the hearing at the State Capitol. Meyer, who was adopted after World War II by Raoul Meyer and Yvonne Bader, now lives in Paris. Her adult son, Raphael, spoke on her behalf.

In 1940, Raoul Meyer attempted to safeguard a considerable collection of paintings at a bank. But the Nazis seized the bank in 1941 and stole the collection — including “La Bergere.”

The Meyer family has since recovered most of the collection. Raphael Meyer described the family's hunt for five or so remaining pieces of art stolen by the Nazis. They were at first excited to discover through an online search that one of the paintings was at OU, he said, then dismayed when the university would not return it.

In May 2013, the family sued in a federal court in New York seeking the painting's return. Raphael Meyer said all his mother wants is the painting back.

In a written statement following Monday’s hearing, the university noted that while the painting is displayed by the museum, it actually belongs to the OU Foundation, as do most private gifts to the university.

The OU statement said the university promised the Meyers it would explore their complaint and respond. Rather than allowing time for that review, it stated, Meyer sued and then distributed an open letter to Oklahomans asking for the painting to be returned.

The Meyer family had unsuccessfully sued for the same painting’s return in Switzerland in 1953, before the Weitzenhoffers had acquired it.

“The University and the OU Foundation have continued to investigate the history of the painting in order to respond appropriately to Plaintiff’s adverse ownership claim,” the university said in its statement.

“While court records indicate Raoul Meyer sought return of the painting after World War II, (the Swiss) Court decided against his claim to the painting. The facts suggest that after the lawsuit, Mr. Meyer was given the opportunity to regain possession of the painting, but he declined to do so. Plaintiff has not shown a full or partial denial of compensation nor has she demonstrated that she is a lawful heir or the sole heir.”

The university said the full history of ownership is not known. It added: “Simply transferring the piece without first knowing all the facts would, among other things, set a very poor precedent and risk disgracing all prior good-faith purchasers and owners of the painting — such as the Weitzenhoffers — whose families were gravely victimized during the war.”

Legislators did not invite the university to participate in Monday’s meeting; OU representatives instead gave a presentation in March.

The organizer of Monday's hearing, Mike Reynolds, R-Oklahoma City, did not permit a university representative to speak until more than two hours into the meeting.

The committee of only six legislators took no action.

“Who would want to keep stolen property?” Raphael Meyer asked the lawmakers, adding that he hopes the university will be “brave enough to do what’s right.”

Rep. Paul Wesselhoft, R-Moore, said the painting's fate is a popular topic among his constituents as he campaigns for re-election. He said many people feel it should be returned.

Even if the university ultimately prevails in federal court, he said, “Don’t they know they are going to lose in a court of public opinion?”

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