Federal court records show the University of Oklahoma has reached a proposed settlement in a lawsuit filed by a French woman who alleged the school’s art museum housed a painting stolen from her father by Nazi allies during World War II.
A lawsuit filed in Oklahoma’s Western District of federal court by Léone Meyer had sought the return of an 1886 Camille Pissarro oil painting titled “La bergère rentrant des moutons” (more commonly referred to as “La Bergère.”) Meyer initially filed the lawsuit in 2013 and amended it in July.
Court records indicate Meyer and university officials reached a proposed settlement after a Nov. 9 meeting in New York City to negotiate the painting’s return.
Léone Meyer had sought in her lawsuit “full and complete restitution of La Bergère.”
The proposed settlement terms between Meyer and the University of Oklahoma are not detailed in the court filing.
The painting once belonged to Leone Meyer’s father, Raoul Meyer, a well-known Jewish French businessman, who had built a collection of impressionist paintings prior to World War II.
According to the lawsuit, Raoul Meyer’s art collection, including La Bergère, was among valuable art and other objects “deliberately and systematically looted and seized by Nazi occupation forces in France and the Vichy Regime, a war-time ally of Nazi Germany.”
The seizure of La Bergère was part of a “brutal campaign of genocide directed at Jews living in France during WWII that ultimately resulted in the murder of more than 76,000 Jews between 1940 and 1944.”
The Pissarro, an Impressionist classic of a shepherdess bringing in her sheep, ended up in the collection of OU’s Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art in Norman, after the estate of Clara Weitzenhoffer’s bequeathed the painting to OU’s museum in 2000.
According to the lawsuit, the Meyer family had long sought the return of the painting, and did not know it had been transported by an art dealer in Holland in 1956 to a New York Gallery.
Because the gallery failed to investigate La Bergère’s prior title and its provenance, the lawsuit alleged, it “illicitly converted” La Bergère by selling it to Aaron and Clara Weitzenhoffer.
The University and its museum failed to perform any meaningful investigation into La Bergère’s title or provenance prior to accepting the Weitzenhoffers’ artwork, the lawsuit alleged, and therefore “unlawfully profited from the fruits of this bequest, which was a product of the Holocaust, and have been unjustly and unlawfully enriched at the expense of Plaintiff.”
The lawsuit mentions the fact that gift was announced in September 2000, just a few months after Weitzenhoffer’s death, and the University’s own Sooner Magazine noted that “the speed with which the bequest was executed caught even those in the loop by surprise. In a matter of weeks, the collection fell into the lap of a giddy museum’s staff.”
A. Max Weitzenhoffer, one of the OU Board of Regents named in Meyer’s lawsuit, is the son of Clara Weitzenhoffer.
University officials issued a statement through General Counsel Anil Gollahalli late Wednesday, saying “the parties have agreed to a mutually-agreeable resolution in principle and are diligently working through the details of formalizing that agreement. Until that time, all parties involved have agreed not to comment further.”
On Thursday, all parties issued a joint statement that read: “Léone Meyer, the University of Oklahoma and the OU Foundation continue to negotiate a final agreement involving a painting by Camille Pissarro called ‘La Bergère.’
The settlement negotiations are ongoing and the parties are diligently working to reach a final agreement. A formal announcement will be made once a final agreement is reached. Until that time, all parties involved have agreed not to comment further.”