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Impressionist Masterpiece Sparks Oklahoma vs. France Legal Battle

People standing in an art gallery admiring paintings on the walls
By Andrew Leonatti on December 22, 2020 8:04 AM

Throughout the Third Reich's time in power over Germany and most of Western Europe, Nazi soldiers looted and stole cultural artifacts from private homes, collections, and museums. This includes paintings by some of the planet's most famous artists.

In the decades since the end of World War II, American and European governments have worked to return stolen artwork, much of which still remains missing. Even today, looted artwork shows up in auction houses, and masterpieces still find their way onto the black market and into the hands of both unwitting and unscrupulous buyers.

We're Just Following the Rules!

One of those pieces, "Shepherdess Bringing in Sheep" by the impressionist bigwig Camille Pissarro, now hangs at the Musée d'Orsay in Paris. It was originally stolen by the Nazis from Léone Meyer's father in 1941. It was only in 2012 that Meyer tracked down the painting to the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art at the University of Oklahoma, which received the piece as part of a donor's estate.

After some not-at-all-unethical legal haggling, Meyer reached an agreement with OU in 2016 that the painting would rotate between Oklahoma and France for public display. Again, a reminder: The piece was stolen from her family by Nazis.

Now, with the piece's rotation in France drawing to a close, Meyer wants to renegotiate the agreement. Meyer alleges she felt pressure to sign the 2016 agreement, and a translation error in the document led to her mistaken belief that she would retain ownership.

"When something is stolen, I expect it to be returned," Meyer says, echoing what parents across the globe tell their children, but apparently not major universities.

OU acknowledges the piece was stolen by Nazis, but it claims it only negotiated the agreement with Meyer because to do otherwise would risk "disgracing all prior good-faith purchasers." OU lawyer Thaddeus Stauber argues now that "everybody went into this relationship informed with all the facts."

What Does the Contract Say?

A French court ordered the parties into mediation, which OU opposes in favor of keeping the original contract in place. A series of hearings will take place early next year in France.

Meyer's arguments in France rest on a ruling from the French Court of Cassation, the country's highest court. Just this year, the court found that no purchasers of Nazi plunder, even those who purchased in good faith, can claim ownership rights.

But last month, a federal judge in Oklahoma ruled in favor of OU. U.S. District Judge Joe Heaton also ordered Meyer to stop litigating the case in France. To violate that ruling could see her held in contempt here in the U.S. We won't hold our breath to see how that turns out.

"The ability to view a painting with such important and deep historical significance presents a tremendous educational opportunity for OU students and museum visitors," says OU President Joseph Harroz, Jr., about a painting stolen from a woman's family by Nazis.

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