OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — A woman adopted as a child by a French couple after World War II is the rightful heir to a painting by artist Camille Pissarro, stolen from her family by the Nazis, which now resides at the University of Oklahoma, her attorney told an Oklahoma House panel on Monday.
Attorney Pierre Ciric presented members of the Oklahoma House Committee on Government Modernization with an account of Leone Meyer’s claim to the painting and how it was plundered by Nazi forces from a bank in southern France during the German occupation during World War II.
Ciric also testified that both Meyer and her father, Raoul Meyer, attempted to recover the painting, the 1886 oil painting “Shepherdess Bringing in Sheep” by Pissarro.
Oklahoma oil tycoon Aaron Weitzenhoffer and his wife, Clara, purchased the painting from a New York gallery in 1956. When Clara Weitzenhoffer died in 2000, the painting was among more than 30 works valued at about $50 million that she donated to the university.
Meyer’s family learned in 2012 the painting was on display at OU’s Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art, Ciric said, and the family sued in federal court in New York in 2013. The University of Oklahoma has filed a motion to dismiss on several grounds, including improper jurisdiction and statute of limitations, and the case is ongoing.
Rep. Mike Reynolds, the chairman of the House panel, has been a vocal critic of the university for not returning the painting.
“Why is a piece of art that everyone agrees was stolen in 1941 any less stolen today?” said Reynolds, R-Oklahoma City. “I actually consider this an embarrassment to the state of Oklahoma.”
University officials have maintained that the full history of the painting’s ownership is not known, and that simply transferring the piece without knowing all the facts would set a bad precedent.
University spokeswoman Catherine Bishop said Monday that OU officials are seeking “cooperative dialogue” with Meyer and her attorneys.
“The university has engaged in good faith with the plaintiff to seek a mutually agreeable resolution and has offered to meet with the plaintiff and her representatives in Paris,” Bishop said in a statement. “Our goal is to seek a fair and reasonable resolution to plaintiff’s modern-day claim or, if the plaintiff prefers, to continue with the legal process and abide by the results.”