Léone Meyer remembers the first time she saw her father’s beloved painting vividly – Shepherdess returning sheep (‘Shepherdess bringing sheep’) by impressionist painter Camille Pissarro – in the basement of the Musée d’Orsay in Paris.
That was four years ago, and the painting, which had been looted by the Nazis in WWII from its Jewish adoptive parents, had finally been returned to France by a museum in Oklahoma.
“Tears came to my eyes,” said Ms. Meyer, now 81. “I almost saw the silhouette of my parents in front of me.
Almost 80 years after her birth mother, brother, aunt and grandmother were deported and murdered in Auschwitz, the Nazi concentration camp in Poland, Ms. Meyer found herself embroiled in the continuing struggle to locate and return looted works of art marketed around the world after the war.
Two legal battles are currently underway over the fate of his Pissarro. Court cases in France and the United States relate to an unusual 2016 agreement between Ms. Meyer and the University of Oklahoma, which previously presented the painting to her Fred Jones Jr Museum of Art.
In Paris, Ms. Meyer disputes the validity of the agreement, which accepted it as the rightful owner but required a rotation of the table every three years from 2021 between France and Oklahoma in perpetuity. The court’s reasoning was that the Fred Jones Museum had received the painting from an owner who had bought it in good faith from a gallery in New York without knowing that it was the spoils of the Nazi war.
Ms. Meyer wanted to donate the painting to the Musée d’Orsay, but the latter refused the bequest as it is not authorized to assume perpetual obligations to pay for regular transport abroad. The risk now is that by not donating the artwork to an institution in France under the agreement, it will be forced to turn it over to the US State Department for its Art in Ambassies program.
“Why don’t they give it to him?” She is over 80 years old and a Holocaust survivor, ”said her lawyer, Ron Soffer. “Many museums around the world would say, ‘Here you can have it.’ For her, it is a question of principle.
Ms. Meyer worked as a pediatrician, but is also a retail heiress wealthy enough to purchase Impressionist paintings if she wishes.
The painting belonged to Ms. Meyer’s adoptive father, Raoul Meyer, a businessman who joined the French resistance and led the commercial empire of Galeries Lafayette after the war. He was also a musician and art lover who was “very attached” to his small collection of paintings, she said.
The Meyers had hidden their artwork in a safe in a bank in southwestern France in 1940, but the Nazis seized the collection and sent it to Switzerland after the Allied landings in 1944. The painting was one of some 100,000 works of art. looted from Jews in France during the German occupation.
This is of particular significance to Ms Meyer due to the importance of the painting to her adoptive parents, a couple who brought her to their family at the age of seven from a Jewish orphanage outside Paris. in 1946.
“It is about respecting my parents’ memory, a desire for justice and the idea that this period allowed millions of people to be killed in the camps, including my biological family,” she said.
An Oklahoma court, meanwhile, ordered Ms. Meyer to abide by the 2016 agreement, which has been validated by US and French courts, and to drop legal proceedings in France or stand trial for contempt of court in the United States.
“In the end, what the [Oklahoma] The museum wants is to have the painting on the wall, ”explains Olivier de Baecque, the lawyer for the university in Paris. “Ms. Meyer must respect court decisions. . . The essence of a settlement is that the parties make concessions.
“When you make a deal like this you have to make compromises and if you don’t honor those compromises there will be no deal in cases of looted art.”
Pissarro’s depiction of the shepherdess opening a farm gate for her sheep, painted in 1886, has made a typical post-war trip to France since the war.
Raoul Meyer located him in Switzerland but lost a court case there in 1953 when he tried to get him back. It was later acquired by New York art dealer David Findlay, who sold it to a family who donated it to the Fred Jones Museum 20 years ago. Ms. Meyer located it in 2012 and began the recovery process.
It was only after the so-called Washington Conference in 1998 called for the identification of Nazi plundered art and the resolution of ownership that the art world began to lean take a closer look at the issue, Mr Soffer said.
“That’s when people started paying attention to provenance and doing due diligence,” he said. “If they [the museum in Oklahoma] had done their due diligence, they would have been alerted that the painting is on the French government’s list of works of art looted by the Nazis.
Michel Jeannoutot, president of the CIVS, a French compensation commission for victims of anti-Semitic looting during the occupation of France, declared that there was “a general movement in Europe and in the United States also to have museums ‘clean’, in which works of art are exhibited with a clear provenance ”.
Pending the judgment of the two courts, Ms. Meyer affirms that her wish remains to donate the entire painting to the Musée d’Orsay, which specializes in Impressionism and has similar rural images of Pissarro in its collection.
“This painting has been traveling the world for almost a century,” she says. “It should stop. It is very important that this table comes back here.