MuskogeePhoenix.com, Muskogee, OK

Oklahoma News

May 13, 2014

Legislators hear plea for OU to return painting to family

Artwork in campus museum allegedly was stolen by Nazis

OKLAHOMA CITY — The son of a Holocaust survivor pleaded with legislators Monday to encourage the University of Oklahoma to return a painting 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 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 Clara Weitzenhoffer’s death from cancer in 2000. It hung in 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. She 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 family has recovered most of the collection. Raphael Meyer described the hunt for five or so remaining pieces. They were at first excited to discover online that one of the paintings was at OU, he said, then dismayed when the university would not return it.

The family filed a federal lawsuit in May 2013 in New York seeking the return of the painting.

After the hearing, OU issued a statement that noted that although the painting is displayed by the museum, it actually belongs to the OU Foundation, as do most private gifts to the university.

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

“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,” OU’s statement said.

“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.”

Janelle Stecklein is the Oklahoma state reporter for CNHI.

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