From The Law Vs. Ethics Files: This Controversy Has Everything—Fine Art, Nazis, Lawsuits, Sheep…

stolen painting

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

29 thoughts on “From The Law Vs. Ethics Files: This Controversy Has Everything—Fine Art, Nazis, Lawsuits, Sheep…

      • Remember, the University of Oklahoma proudly refers to itself as ‘The Sooners”. Who were ‘the Sooners”? They were people who cheated, gaining their property by breaking the rules. They also claim to be “Boomer Sooners”. A “Boomer Sooner” is someone who came across someone who already worked out a legal land claim, then shot them and took the land and their work establishing a claim. Do you expect anything better from them?

        I have always wondered what kind of school would proudly use such a mascot. I mean you don’t see The University of Massachussetts “Rum Runners” or the Charleston College ‘Slave Traders” do you?

        • I mean you don’t see The University of Massachussetts “Rum Runners”. . . do you?

          No, but you damned well should. Beats hell out of the gender-exclusionary “Minutemen.” FTR, the women’s teams are called the Minutewomen. But these names exclude anyone who isn’t cisgendered. And they adopted the “Minutemen” name after Native American groups complained about the former name… the Redmen (presumably Redwomen as well).

          But ANYONE could be a rumrunner!

  1. Everything was stolen from Leone and her own children and grandchildren. The painting represents the hole in her life and that of her descendants whether obvious or not. The University of Oklahoma’s insistence on keeping the spoils of Holocaust looting represents the continued suffering of every victim of massacre and mass murder since WWII. Overcoming this trauma does not absolve offspring collaborators of their offenses and, let me make this clear, the University of Oklahoma is an offspring collaborator. It knows that Leone Meyer was in the subordinate position in this negotiation and now it wants to continue it descendant collaboration in mass murder and looting because it thinks it can just like the first Nazis held their collective victims’ feet to the fire 80 years ago.

    The majority of Holocaust survivors are dead now but their children know and remember the hole in their collective lives as they are collateral victims themselves. We know and remember. Leone Meyer knows and remembers.

    My own mother died not ever knowing what happened to her parents and brother. Both of my parents were sole survivors of large extended families. Imagine having no grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins or any close blood relations. Imagine being a child processing that everyone of immediate consequence has been murdered. I claim no uniqueness. Massacres and the resulting survivors are still a common occurrence. What’s missing is the empathy and compassion of those who have not that knowledge.

    When my mother, aged 15, returned to her home after walking across Poland in late 1944 the next door neighbor, stunned that she survived, reported that the home had been looted by all of the neighbors. He then returned to her a doll and her movie star picture albums. The neighbor then told her to get out of town or she would be murdered by her other neighbors who were complicit in the disappearance of the Jewish families.

    The back of the returned movie star pictures had my mother’s mother’s handwriting on them. This handwriting is the only extant evidence that Augusta Pecenik Fischer ever lived at all. Lucky for me that no one is fighting me for these artifacts.

    If possession is 9/10ths of the law and the painting is still in France then let France continue to atone for its own collaboration in mass murder. Who will enforce the Oklahoma District Judge’s Order anyway? Who does he or she think they are? After everything that has happened to us, we are afraid of a contempt order from a Judge with no enforcement ability anyway? This Judge is another offspring collaborator if he or she thinks those of us with knowledge care about the ruling.

    The burden is on those of us with the knowledge of such tragedy and trauma to try and relieve the suffering of those who are continuing victims. The Judaicide of the 20th century is unique only in that its surviving victims had the strength and wherewithal to demand wholeness in the aftermath. No one was ever made whole but the ability to continue the struggle was rejuvenating as was the ability to start again with new families and offspring and new wealth.

    Anyone who knew my mother in the United States without knowing what happened to her would never have guessed what was taken from her when she was just a little girl. Her suffering was never an exterior mien burdening all who met her. She channeled her efforts at wholeness into amassing her own impressive wealth and living well as her revenge. Leone Meyer is struggling for wholeness as represented by this great work of art and she is already the winner.

    Offspring collaborators like the University of Oklahoma are empty vessels of opportunity mixed with ignorance and hatred for their moral obligations. We must pray for them to realize the errors of their ways.

      • Wow. Your mother overcame true bigotry and hatred to live her best life. She had the ultimate revenge: living and living well.

        Like John, I agree with your entire argument.

    • Despite some of the people who I normally agree with going all in on this, I’m going to push back, and hard, on a couple things;

      “The University of Oklahoma’s insistence on keeping the spoils of Holocaust looting represents the continued suffering of every victim of massacre and mass murder since WWII. Overcoming this trauma does not absolve offspring collaborators of their offenses and, let me make this clear, the University of Oklahoma is an offspring collaborator.”

      This is overstated and disgusting. Calling people Nazi collaborators because they ended up in ownership of property that went through the hands of a dozen people previous to theirs, and would like to keep that property isn’t useful, and doesn’t reflect reality. Because of the particular heinousness of the holocaust, and the emotions in play, we sometimes forget that at the end of the day, these property disputes *are* in fact property disputes. Property disputes of this nature, but without the backdrop of WWII, happen hundreds of times each year… Attaching the emotional baggage of the original owner and labelling the current holder as abjectly evil amounts to emotional blackmail. The argument can be made that the university in this case didn’t pay for the painting, and I agree that that should really make the decision easy from their perspective, but people acting in good faith have shelled out millions of dollars for property that ended up being confiscated and given back to the original families. This doesn’t make anything better, really… The Nazis who originally stole the property still got paid.

      “If possession is 9/10ths of the law and the painting is still in France then let France continue to atone for its own collaboration in mass murder. Who will enforce the Oklahoma District Judge’s Order anyway? Who does he or she think they are? After everything that has happened to us, we are afraid of a contempt order from a Judge with no enforcement ability anyway? This Judge is another offspring collaborator if he or she thinks those of us with knowledge care about the ruling.”

      I suppose that begs the question, if possession is 9/10ths of the law, and France will allow people to keep property that they’ve agreed to have on a sharing schedule… Why the heck would anyone every give anything back? Whether Leone felt frustrated at the process is irrelevant, she negotiated a contract in bad faith, and then effectively stole the property.

      The judge thinks he’s an American judge, beholden to American law. And is threatening contempt charges because that contract was American, and should be held to American legal standards. Leone is staying in France because the French legal system is more friendly to her cause. Again… Calling people Nazi collaborators with those fact patterns is overstated and gross.

      • Points well taken, HT. I would add that they there is a problem with provenance – title – relating to these artworks. While these paintings may be considered “personal property” society seems to carve out exceptions for works of art. If the original sellers never had title to the works, then they could never have conveyed clear title to a purchaser and any subsequent purchaser does not acquire greater title than what the seller had. There may be statutes of limitations that cut off title claims, but that is a different argument.

        I don’t agree that the University is engaged in further genocide because it refuses to return the painting, though. That may not be a nice or ethical thing to do, but it is certainly not genocide or participation in genocide.

        jvb

          • That is a bridge too far for me, though.

            This is the statement at issue:

            “Overcoming this trauma does not absolve offspring collaborators of their offenses and, let me make this clear, the University of Oklahoma is an offspring collaborator. It knows that Leone Meyer was in the subordinate position in this negotiation and now it wants to continue it descendant collaboration in mass murder and looting because it thinks it can just like the first Nazis held their collective victims’ feet to the fire 80 years ago.”

            jvb

        • “ If the original sellers never had title to the works, then they could never have conveyed clear title to a purchaser and any subsequent purchaser does not acquire greater title than what the seller had. ”

          Yes and no.

          The relevant legal concept here is “good-faith purchaser for value.” If you really believe you are buying from the owner, and you are paying for it (not a sham transaction or fraudulent conveyance), you have a legitimate ownership claim.

          How does that fit here? With all the stolen art, were claims of ownership of certain pieces well known? Was the ownership of THIS piece well-known. If this piece was known to gave been stolen, the purchaser was not a good-faith one.

          Subordinate consideration: must any purchaser of European art post-WWII presume it is stolen? Where does the burden fall? Presumably, one could assume the Mona Lisa was stolen, but THIS work?

          If this piece was stolen and innocently purchased by a good faith purchaser for value, then what? The innocent purchaser is SOL? Or must the rightful owner at least make the innocent purchaser whole, by paying them what they paid?

          I don’t know how these considerations are relevant in this case. But, what bugged me is the negotiation. It seemed as if the University knew it had. no rightful claim (its claim would be as strong as the one making the gift). If so, there would be no consideration for the agreement. The agreement would not be legally enforceable. So, while the other side does not look great making an agreement they intended to re-negotiate, they appear to gave been totally within their rights.

          -Jut

            • Depends.

              There are illusory promises.

              There is illegal consideration.

              If the argument is that the University agreed to forbear from pursuing its claim, maybe.

              But, if I gave no legal claim to your car, am I providing you anything by saying I will let you use it during the week, but not weekends? That is akin to extortion, which is illegal consideration.

              But, I don’t know exactly what was claimed by the university.

              -Jut

      • These are all valid points. What interests me is how often purchasers of such works in the notorious world of art commerce really don’t know or suspect that the artworks were stolen, and just prefer wilful ignorance.

        • As a very similar exercise, how many people do you think own property that was stolen from people during the Japanese internment? I actually think that’s a great parallel, because it’s basically the same property issue without the awfulness of the holocaust.

          When Japanese people were being shifted out, all of a sudden homes and businesses were being sold at rock bottom prices, buildings were foreclosed, vehicles repossessed, personal items were carted away, the loss of wealth at the time was profound, and it wouldn’t be particularly hard for an unsuspecting person to have benefitted from that. I think it’ll depend on the item… I wouldn’t think twice as to the origin of secondhand jewelry, as an example. Art…. It gets a little better the further we get from the act, and the more hands it passes through, but especially the 20 or so years after the war… People knew.

      • I’m with you on this one, HT. I came back to this post, after seeing the COTD post, preparing to take a mostly contrarian view, but you’ve already done the (better) job. While I strongly sympathize with families and descendants in these situations, and would like to see paths to make them whole, or at least accommodate them as much as possible, Genie’s argument seems a bit too much an overwrought appeal to emotion than a reasoned explanation as to why and how this should be done. (No offense to Genie; most of us would probably feel about the same as she does in this case.)

  2. The University is wrong. If they have any complaint, it is with the provider of the stolen goods. They are free to pursue a civil complaint there for any costs they’ve incurred.

    Forswearing and/or subverting a contact is also wrong. The ends cannot justify the means if the means is oathbreaking.

  3. The painting is a hot potato. Who would want to keep it any way? Is the University being shitty? Yes. Are they wrong? Yes. Unethical in keeping it? Yes. But collaborators in mass murder? Come on.

    And remind me to never enter into a contract with Leone Meyer.

    • Yes, that occurred to me as well. Her rationalization is that U of O was dragging out negotiations, so she made the best deal she could, but intended to try to get out of it later. Well, that’s bad faith negotiation.

      • All true. But what does a state’s purportedly esteemed land grant university lose by giving the painting back? Nothing. What do they gain by keeping it? Calumny. What are the decision makers thinking? Any publicity is good publicity? Are there any reasonable adults involved in running the place? A board of trustees? A governor?

        • Every single solitary person with their fingers in this pie no matter their role has something to gain.. It is not about the Holocaust, It is not about the rightful owner. It is not even about a contract. It is about a million other things all beginning with this symbol $, and there must be plenty of them. It is an affront to pretend otherwise.

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