The painting above is “La Bergère,” or “Shepherdess Bringing in Sheep,” by Camille Pissarro, a renowned French Impressionist. The 1886 painting, like so many other priceless works of art, was stolen by the Nazis in 1941, when they looted the French bank where the Jewish family who owned, the Meyers, it had placed the painting for safe-keeping. Dr. Léone Meyer, whose mother, grandmother, uncle and brother died in Auschwitz, searched for her family heirloom ever since the end of World War II. Finally, in 2012, she traced the painting to the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art at the University of Oklahoma.
In 2016, she negotiated a compromise to trade the painting back and forth between the university and a French museum, but the controversy was re-opened when Dr. Meyer decided that she wants the painting permanently dispalyed in France. Now the courts are involved, on two continents. A judicial tribunal in Paris is deciding whether to block the work from being shipped out of France, and ordered Dr. Meyer and the university to meet with mediators. A federal judge in Oklahoma, meanwhile, has threatened to hold Dr. Meyer in contempt if she continued to pursue litigation in France. A trial is scheduled for January 19 in Paris to hear Dr. Meyer’s arguments for keeping the work there, and a second hearing is set for March on whether to prohibit the painting’s trip back to where the the wind comes sweeping down the plain.
The university’s position is simple: a deal’s a deal. Meyer says she was pressured to sign the agreement in 2016 after four years of fruitless negotiations. “I thought it was better to see the portrait that I had never seen in my life,” she said. “It was better that it came back to France. I accepted the deal with the idea to renegotiate it.” Thaddeus Stauber,who represents the University of Oklahoma, says his clients oppose mediation because the matter was settled by their compromise, a contract, with Dr. Meyer.
The painting was donated by an Oklahoma oil tycoon along with others. He bought “La Bergère,” from a New York gallery in 1957. Even though the university does not deny that the painting was stolen by the Nazis, it maintains that keeping it is a matter of principle, arguing that giving back the painting would risk “disgracing all prior good-faith purchasers.” There is also precedent for such rotations in a legal dispute over artwork. Manet’s “Music in the Tuileries Gardens” travels back and forth every six years between Ireland and England as part of a compromise to settle an ownership dispute between the National Gallery in London and Hugh Lane Gallery in Dublin.
Art stolen from Jewish families by the Nazis, however, raises unique issues. I wrote here about a “Woman in Gold,” an excellent ethics film about a similar dispute that was settled when an Austrian court ruled that a stolen masterpiece should be returned to the family that had owned it before the war. Since the 2016 compromise between Dr. Meyer and the University of Oklahoma, a French court settled another dispute over a stolen Pissarro by relying on a 1945 French decree that if a work of art was plundered during the war, all following sales were null and void.
The legal issues in the current case are complex, involving contract and international law. The ethics verdict is easy. The University of Oklahoma paid nothing for “La Bergère,” and it knows the painting belongs to Dr. Meyer’s family. It also knows its museum has benefited from a Nazi theft linked to the Holocaust. Contract or not, returning the painting to the Meyer family is the ethical act, while keeping the painting, legally or not, is unethical.
I suspect the university knows this. It just doesn’t want to give up the painting.
Facts: New York Times