Will a Looted Pissarro End Up in Oklahoma, or France?

PARIS — For greater than 70 years, Léone Meyer’s household has fought to reclaim a looted portray, and but she can’t bear the considered displaying it in her Left Financial institution residence, throughout from the River Seine.

The small work, by Camille Pissarro, exhibits a shepherdess tending her flock, and hangs not distant on the Musée d’Orsay, with different treasured French Impressionist work. However the peaceable countryside scene from 1886 is fraught with a again story of plunder, household tragedy and authorized battles that stretch from Paris to Oklahoma.

Dr. Meyer’s mom, grandmother, uncle and brother died in Auschwitz. Her father hid the portray in a French financial institution that was looted in 1941 by the Nazis, and the work vanished within the murky universe of artwork market collaborators and middlemen. Many years later, in 2012, she found the whereabouts of “La Bergère,” or “Shepherdess Bringing in Sheep,” within the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Artwork, on the College of Oklahoma. In 2016, she brokered a compromise to rotate it between the college and a French museum.

The authorized tug-of-war started anew after Dr. Meyer sought to alter the settlement and completely hold the portray in France, upsetting courtroom clashes about its future this month in Paris and the U.S. District Court docket for the Western District of Oklahoma.

“When one thing is stolen, I anticipate it to be returned,” Dr. Meyer, a former pediatrician, mentioned in an interview. “I’ve no different curiosity than to recuperate this portray within the reminiscence of my household.”

She felt strain to signal the settlement in 2016 after 4 years of protracted negotiations, she mentioned. The doc, she added, contained a translation error from English to French in a piece regarding the portray’s possession, however she had missed it on the time.

“I assumed it was higher to see the portrait that I had by no means seen in my life,” she mentioned. “It was higher that it got here again to France. I accepted the cope with the concept to renegotiate it.”

On Tuesday, a judicial tribunal in Paris weighing whether or not to dam the work from being shipped out of France ordered Dr. Meyer and the college to satisfy with mediators. Earlier this month, a federal choose in Oklahoma threatened to carry Dr. Meyer in contempt if she continued to pursue litigation in France.

A trial is scheduled for Jan. 19 in Paris to listen to Dr. Meyer’s arguments for holding the work in France, and a second listening to is ready for March on whether or not to ban transport overseas.

Thaddeus Stauber, a lawyer who represents the College of Oklahoma, mentioned it opposes mediation, as a result of, in its view, the matter has been settled by its contract with Dr. Meyer.

In November, the American Alliance of Museums and the Affiliation of Artwork Museum Administrators sent a letter to the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art to precise their help for the college’s battle to keep up the settlement.

In one other signal of the intensifying battle, French officers from a state fee that considers looted artwork work claims are analyzing info offered by Dr. Meyer and her legal professionals that raises questions in regards to the provenance of different artworks that have been donated by an Oklahoma oil tycoon, together with the Pissarro, to the college museum. However such a evaluate might simply take greater than a yr, mentioned Michel Jeannoutot, the fee’s president.

All through the years of negotiations main as much as the 2016 settlement, the college by no means denied that the portray was looted by the Nazis. It objected to returning the work on procedural grounds, arguing in a 2015 assertion that giving again the portray would danger “disgracing all prior good-faith purchasers” corresponding to its donor, who purchased it from a New York gallery in 1957.

“Our place continues to be that we labored by it collectively, in 2016, and we reached a decision,” Mr. Stauber mentioned.

The Meyer household’s pursuit of the Pissarro exhibits the cussed resolve of two generations. After the battle, Raoul Meyer — Dr. Meyer’s father, who was the longtime chairman of the Galeries Lafayette division retailer chain — began the seek for artwork seized in 1941 from his financial institution vault in Southwestern France by the monetary arm of the Nazi occupation.

He recovered most of the lacking works, discovering in 1951 that the shepherdess had ended up with a Swiss purchaser after a collection of trades by artwork market sellers who collaborated with the Nazis. Like his daughter, he additionally negotiated its return, however balked on the phrases of the provided deal; he refused to purchase again his property.

By 1996, Dr. Meyer resumed her father’s quest, hiring specialists to seek for the shepherdess, which had since modified fingers. Dr. Meyer was elected chairman of the Galeries Lafayette firm in 1998, about the identical time that she intensified the hunt by organizing conferences on looted artwork.

“It will have been simpler to not search; a lot simpler,” she mentioned. “However, I felt I needed to do it.”

She had the monetary assets to enlist skilled researchers, however it was not till 2012 that considered one of her sons found a clue on a weblog that led to the College of Oklahoma, which had acquired the portray, with different works, in 2000. The following authorized battle over possession ended with the 2016 compromise to switch the portray to France for public show for 5 years, till July 2021, adopted by three-year rotations between Oklahoma and France.

Because the deadline to start preparations for the switch again to Oklahoma loomed, Dr. Meyer final yr modified legal professionals and approached the college to change the settlement. Dr. Meyer mentioned she unsuccessfully provided to purchase again the portray. Concepts have been floated about loaning different comparable works from the Musée d’Orsay to Oklahoma, Dr. Meyer mentioned — maybe different Pissarro work.

Francis Steinbock, a normal administrator for the museum, mentioned that the Musée d’Orsay stayed on the sidelines of the dispute. It isn’t a authorized get together on this “painful state of affairs,” he added, and there have been by no means any formal discussions between the museum and the college about loans. (A 2019 doc seen by The New York Occasions, nonetheless, exhibits {that a} Musée d’Orsay official had proposed the concept of a restricted mortgage instead of the shepherdess portray.)

Dr. Meyer mentioned she finally needs to donate the portray to the Musée d’Orsay, however its managers have raised objections to the long-term circumstances of the donation: the price of transporting the work between international locations and the bodily have an effect on that will have on the delicate portray.

There may be precedent for such rotations in a authorized dispute; Manet’s “Music within the Tuileries Gardens” travels back and forth every six years between Eire and England as a part of compromise to settle an possession dispute between the Nationwide Gallery in London and Hugh Lane Gallery in Dublin. Mr. Stauber, the Oklahoma college’s lawyer, famous that below the phrases of the settlement with Dr. Meyer, the college paid for transportation to France and can fund its return to the USA.

“All people went into this relationship knowledgeable with all of the info,” Mr. Stauber mentioned.

However the French authorized view on looted artworks has additionally developed because the compromise was hammered out with Dr. Meyer. She and her authorized advisers cite a latest ruling in one other Pissarro dispute, through which a judge relied on a 1945 French decree to conclude that if a piece was plundered throughout the battle, all following gross sales are null and void.

After virtually 25 years of looking out and waging authorized battles for the shepherdess, Dr. Meyer stays resolute to proceed her quest. She mentioned she nonetheless remembers the jolt she felt, in 2017, when she noticed the portray for the primary time, nearly alone, within the Musée d’Orsay. It’s too emotional, she mentioned, to show such a portray in her residence as a result of it’s seared with household reminiscences.

“I cried,” she mentioned. “It was a horrible emotional shock. I considered my dad and mom and the way they checked out this and why they purchased it.”

The shepherdess, she mentioned, belongs within the Musée d’Orsay with a easy plaque dedicated to her household.

“I’ve a proper to my reminiscence; I’ve a proper to justice,” she mentioned. “All of my members of the family have been killed. I can always remember.”

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