NORMAN — In 1940, after Paris fell under Nazi control, German troops began looting thousands of artworks from museums, galleries and personal collections across France.
Today, one of those paintings hangs in the University of Oklahoma's Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art. Now, the daughter of its former owner wants the painting back.
The painting is “Shepherdess Bringing In Sheep,” an 1886 work by French impressionist artist Camille Pissarro. It was stolen from Raoul Meyer, a Jewish businessman in Paris, during the Nazi occupation of France.
Meyer's daughter, Leone Meyer, is suing OU in hopes of recovering the painting. But OU officials are refusing to return the work, citing a previous court ruling in Switzerland that denied the family's claim based on its timing. The fact that the Nazis stole the painting is not in dispute.
Nazis seized artwork
Before the German invasion of France, the Meyer family was part owner of Groupe Galeries Lafayette, an upscale French department store. Raoul Meyer amassed a large collection of French impressionist paintings.
But with the fall of France, the family was removed from management of the department store, and the business was placed under the control of the Nazi-backed Vichy government.
Raoul Meyer's art collection was seized during the Nazi occupation.
After the war, Meyer, who survived the occupation, spent years trying to track down the artwork that had been stolen. Meanwhile, “Shepherdess Bringing In Sheep” changed hands several times.
The painting's history after it was seized is recounted in Leone Meyer's complaint.
In 1953, Meyer sued Christoph Bernoulli, a Swiss art dealer who had bought the painting, to try to recover it.
But a Swiss judge dismissed the suit, saying Meyer filed his complaint after a five-year window for such lawsuits had passed.
Over the years, the painting made its way to an art gallery in New York. Norman oilman Aaron Weitzenhoffer and his wife, Clara, bought the painting from the gallery in 1956.
The painting was part of an extensive collection of impressionist art the couple amassed over decades.
Clara Weitzenhoffer died in 2000, leaving 33 pieces of art to the OU museum. At the time, university officials said the collection, which included “Shepherdess Bringing In Sheep,” was one of the most important collections of French impressionist paintings given to an American public university.
Max Weitzenhoffer, the son of Aaron and Clara Weitzenhoffer, said his parents never knew about the painting's connections to Nazi art theft.
Max Weitzenhoffer, who serves on the OU Board of Regents, said he didn't know of any provision in his mother's will preventing the university from returning the painting to the Meyer family.
Cases are common
The pending lawsuit was filed in May in federal court in New York.
But OU officials questioned whether the university was legally required to return the painting. University officials refused to comment about the case. But in a motion to dismiss the lawsuit, the university's attorney argues the dismissal of the family's 1953 lawsuit in Switzerland should bar the family from making the same claim 60 years later.
Dawn St. Clare, an art history professor at Oklahoma City University, said cases where museums and other public institutions find out they own artworks that were stolen by the Nazis are relatively common.
In December, a German art historian claimed to have found two Nazi-looted artworks inside the Bundestag, Germany's Parliament building.
That revelation came about a month after German authorities uncovered a cache of stolen art in a Munich apartment.
St. Clare said those cases present difficult ethical challenges, especially where a painting's owners bought the work in good faith, as the Weitzenhoffers had.
In those cases, there's no established code of ethics for what a museum should do, especially since details can vary widely from one case to the next.
“Where do you place blame? I don't know,” she said. “I really don't know.”
[For a background article from 2011 click here.]