Pissarro’s “Shepherdess” returns to Paris after lawsuit settles

A painting by Camille Pissarro looted by the Nazis from a French bank vault during the Second World War returned to France on 20 April after a decades-long battle for its restitution.

“Bergère Rentrant des Moutons” (“Shepherdess Bringing in Sheep”) painted in 1886 will be alternately displayed in France and the USA at three-year intervals. The display agreement is dictated by the terms of a legal settlement reached in February 2016 between the University of Oklahoma and the heir to the work, Léone Meyer, who sued the university for the painting’s return.

The French Impressionist painting originally belonged to Théophile Bader, the co-founder of the Parisian department store chain Galeries Lafayette. It was inherited by Bader’s daughter Yvonne and her husband Raoul Meyer who adopted Léone in 1946 after her biological family perished at Auschwitz.

When Paris fell under Nazi occupation in 1940, the Pissarro was hidden in a bank vault in southern France along with a piece by André Derain and at least three works by Pierre-Auguste Renoir. The following year, the vault was plundered by the Nazis and the Meyers’ art collection was taken to the Jeu de Paume in Paris, which was used as a holding area for cultural objects looted by the German authorities.

In 1952, the Meyers tracked down the Pissarro in a Swiss collection and sued its owner for the restitution of the work. Unable to prove the owner knew the painting was stolen when he purchased it the Swiss court ruled against them. Shipped to New York City, the work was purchased by Clara Weitzenhoffer, the widow of Oklahoma oilman Aaron Weitzenhoffer, in 1957.

Upon Clara’s death in 2000, her collection including the Pissarro was donated to the University of Oklahoma’s Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art. It wasn’t until 2009, when the Holocaust Art Restitution Project published a blog post on the painting’s questionable provenance that the Meyers picked up the trail of their long-lost artwork once again.

When Léone contacted the University of Oklahoma President, David Boren, in 2012 to ask for the work to be returned she was told it belonged to the University of Oklahoma Foundation and not the university. “Just because someone asks for something, you don’t instantly hand over something that has been very generously given in good faith to the university”, Boren told reporters.

Considering it her duty to both her biological and adoptive families to reclaim the painting Léone filed suit against Boren, the University of Oklahoma Foundation and the university’s Board of Regents. In an open letter to the public written in February 2014 Léone wrote of her fight that to “surrender and say ‘oh well,’…is out of the question.”

The terms of the legal settlement agreed in February 2016 dictate that the painting, which is now owned by Meyer is to be exhibited at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris for five years. It will then cross the Atlantic every three years to be displayed alternately between the University of Oklahoma and a French institution of Léone’s choice.

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