Dispute over Pissarro shared by France and USA returns to court

The owner of a Camille Pissarro painting plundered by the Nazis during the Second World War has reopened a decades-long battle over its ownership.

Holocaust survivor, Léone Meyer, is returning to court to challenge the terms of a 2016 agreement concerning ‘La Bergère Rentrant des Moutons’ (‘Shepherdess Bringing in Sheep’) painted by Pissarro in 1886.

The French Impressionist work formed part of the collection of Théophile Bader, co-founder of Parisian department store chain, Galeries Lafayette. It was inherited by his daughter, Yvonne, and her husband Raoul Meyer, who adopted Léone aged seven in 1946 after her mother, a Jewish seamstress, was deported to Auschwitz.

The work, together with the rest of the Meyers’ art collection, was looted following the Nazi occupation of Paris. Years later, the Meyer family unearthed the artwork in a Swiss collection and sued its owner unsuccessfully for its restitution. The work changed hands and the trail went cold again until 2009, when the painting resurfaced in the collection of the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art at the University of Oklahoma.

In February 2016, Léone Meyer reached an agreement with the university according to which:

  • The university would transfer ownership to Meyer;
  • The painting would be displayed at a museum in France for five years;  
  • At the end of the five years, the painting would rotate every three years between the university and one or more French institutions selected by Meyer;
  • Meyer would donate the painting to an art institution in France during her lifetime or in her will; and
  • If Meyer fails to find a French museum willing to accept the work, she must hand it over to the US State Department to display in US embassies around the world.

In accordance with the agreement, the Pissarro has been on display at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris since 2017. When Meyer attempted to donate it to the Museum for its permanent collection in 2018, it refused citing the high cost and inherent risk of transporting it to the USA every three years. Meyer’s lawyer, Ron Soffer, advised that any other French institution would likely refuse for the same reason.

Meyer is now seeking to alter the terms of the original agreement to prevent the Pissarro’s scheduled return to Oklahoma in July 2021. She has filed suit in France seeking permanent ownership and the removal of the term stipulating the painting’s rotation between the USA and France. As a compromise, Meyer offered to agree a partner exhibit between the university and the Musée d’Orsay in which the French museum would loan the university other artworks including a painting by Renoir.

The university declined the offer and the case will be heard by a French court in January 2021.

Meyer’s case relies on a French court ruling from July 2020, which held that anyone in possession of stolen art must return it free of charge. This would make it incumbent upon the Fred Jones Jr. Museum to return the work to Meyer.

While the University of Oklahoma has consistently maintained it accepted the work as a donation made in good faith, Soffer asked ‘Why would the University of Oklahoma want to exhibit a painting that was stolen by the Nazis?… What kind of a message does it send to their students?’.

Soffer reiterated that if Meyer is successful in her new suit, she will donate the painting to the Musée d’Orsay as she previously sought to. He also emphasised the French court’s jurisdiction over the matter arguing ‘this is a case that involves Nazi occupation in France. It should be settled by the French courts’.

University of Oklahoma president, Joseph Harroz Jr. and University of Oklahoma Foundation president and chief Executive, Guy Patton, responded in a statement that Meyer was ‘inexplicably’ seeking to break the 2016 agreement that was ‘heralded as a first-of-its-kind U.S.-France international art sharing agreement’.

For all the good faith that the OU Foundation and the University of Oklahoma have extended to Ms. Meyer, it is disappointing that she is actively working to renege on the agreement’, their statement continued, ‘We are ready to challenge this unwarranted threat in U.S. and French courts’.

The reopened case calls into question whether international art sharing agreements, though well-intentioned, are practically and commercially viable.

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