Tuesday, 13 May 2014

Oklahoma House Committee Pissarro Hearing: Mike Reynolds Opening Statement

The Oklahoma House Conference Committee on Government Modernization and Accountability met today to discuss the painting "La Bergere" by Camille Pissarro, which currently resides in the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art in Norman, OK, where it was bequeathed to the University of Oklahoma Foundation by Clara Weitzenhoffer's estate in 2000. The coversation was spirited and informative.

Rep. Mike Reynolds kicked off the proceedings with the following opening statement:

Mike Reynolds Opening Statement

Good morning.

I think it’s fair to say that this is no ordinary committee hearing, ladies and gentlemen.

We’re here this morning to understand how a stolen artwork ended up in the University of Oklahoma’s Fred Jones Museum, all the way from Paris under German occupation in 1941.

What we hear about today has implications not just for our state and our financial duty, but also on the world stage.

The recent news story of the 1200 paintings discovered in Germany, many of which are Nazi-era plundered artworks, has made headlines everywhere. The scale of the looting by Nazi Germany hasn’t been seen since Ancient Rome. We’re still living with the consequences of those crimes, seven decades later, here in our home state, which frankly I consider an embarrassment to the State of Oklahoma.

The case we’re about to hear about is that important.

The story of this painting has echoes all over the world right now. At issue is whether or not people who own a piece of property can trust that title to that property will be honored anywhere, under the rule of law.

We take as our guidance the Constitution and the law, which guarantees that you can trust the value of the title of the property you own.

Moreover, as elected representatives of the state of Oklahoma, we have a fiduciary responsibility to see that not only are state funds honorably spent but that property held within our jurisdiction isn’t stolen, however acquired.

That means that today is, underneath it all, about trust.

Trust that the people of Oklahoma know their museums aren’t safe havens for stolen art.

Trust that the governance of our universities and museums hasn’t been shortchanged: that those empowered to do their duty are in fact doing their duty before the law.

Trust that people of Oklahoma have invested in us as their representatives, to see our tax dollars spent wisely and that the standard of due process has been met—in every respect.

So why the difference of opinion over what’s stolen and what isn’t?

Some people believe a piece of stolen art isn’t like a stolen car ---an open and shut case.

If the pickup in your driveway comes up stolen, you’re facing criminal charges if you don’t return it. It doesn’t belong to you and due process demands the right owner get the property back.

Here’s my bottom line: why is a piece of art that everybody agrees was stolen in 1941 any less stolen today?

I think we all want to know why—and what the role of the lawmakers, administrators and museum staff in our state has been In this case.

So let’s find out. To assist us today, we have 3 speakers:

Pierre Ciric is a French-born New York attorney representing the plaintiff, Léone Meyer, we also have Raphael Meyer, who is the son of Léone Meyer and representing Léone here today, and we have Marc Masurovsky, a historian, researcher, and advocate, co-founder of the Holocaust Art Restitution project, an advocacy group specialized in the research of looted artworks during World War II and the Holocaust.

Mr. Ciric?

Monday, 12 May 2014

Raphaël Meyer and a remarkable Mother's Day moment

It’s not every Mother’s Day a son stands before a painting he and his mother want returned to their family, a painting stolen by the Nazis from their family in 1941, its location unknown for 60 years.

But that’s what Raphaël Meyer did yesterday. The French native, now living in New York State, stood next to Camille Pissarro’s ‘La Bergère,’ (The Shepherdess) and spoke about what the painting means not just to his family and its history—his mother’s family all perished at Auschwitz—but to the greater issue of restitution of artwork looted in time of war.

Léone Meyer, adopted by Raoul Meyer and his wife following the murder of her family at Auschwitz, was unable to travel because of ill health, but she could not have asked for a more moving Mother’s Day gift.

The painting was previously the focus of litigation in Switzerland after Raoul Meyer discovered the painting was in possession of a Swiss art dealer.

The Swiss court held that Raoul Meyer could not prove the art dealer had bought the painting “in bad faith” so the painting was not returned. After the Swiss ruling, the painting’s whereabouts remained unknown to the Meyer family until a member of the family discovered a reference to the painting in a blog post discussing records of the Nazi special task force, the ERR, which was dedicated to systematically looting the art of Europe.

Mr. Meyer, family attorney Pierre Ciric of New York City, and Marc Masurovsky, a looted art specialist and audit team leader on President Clinton’s commission on Holocaust-era assets in the US, are all testifying before an Oklahoma legislature committee today. This is the second haring the committee has held while investigating the Fred Jones Museum’s possession of La Bergère.

Sunday, 11 May 2014

A Letter from Léone Meyer to David Boren, President, University of Oklahoma

On February 10, 2014, Léone Meyer sent the following letter to David Boren, President of the University of Oklahoma, regarding the Pissarro case. Mme. Meyer received no reply from Mr. Boren, or from any other representative of the University, Fred Jones Museum, or the University of Oklahoma Foundation.

Dr. Léone Noëlle Meyer 39 quai d’Orsay 75007 PARIS France

To the attention of David Boren
University of Oklahoma
Evans Hall Room 110
660 Parrington Oval
Norman, Oklahoma 73019-3073


Dear Mr. Boren:

This open letter is about the painting called “Sheperdess Bringing In Sheep” (“Bergère rentrant des moutons”) (1886), an oil on canvas by Camille Pissarro, bequeathed by Clara Weitzenhoffer in 2000 to the University of Oklahoma.

With regard to the provenance of the painting, the documentation filed by my father, Raoul Meyer, with the French Government after the liberation of France establishes this provenance conclusively. Hence, there is no question as to whom this painting originates with.

The painting is currently on display at the University of Oklahoma’s Museum, the Fred Jones Museum of Art, as the result of a 2000 bequest by Clara Weitzenhoffer. She had acquired the painting in 1956 from a New York gallery, which had not verified its history although, at that time, that might have been a wise thing to do.

The Raoul Meyer family is my family by adoption and I am its sole heiress.

Since the death of my adoptive parents, in June 1970 and January 1971 respectively, I have never given up hope that I would one day find all the paintings missing from their collection which had been plundered by the Nazis between 1940 and 1944 during the German occupation of France.

And yet, few details of those events were within my grasp. Nevertheless, I continued my own quest for the painting until 2012, when one of my sons and his wife uncovered on the Internet a concrete lead concerning the whereabouts of the painting.

That news overwhelmed me.

Please understand that my quest carries within it a tremendous emotional burden. My entire biological family was murdered at Auschwitz between 1942 (the Vel d’Hiv pogrom) and 1944: first, my mother in 1942, then in 1944 my seven and a half year old brother Henri, who was three years older than me (he was born on December 13, 1936) — and the rest of my family, they were all murdered, while I, somehow, miraculously, survived this slaughter.

Right after liberation, a Jewish relief organization took me in its care near Paris. Then, when I was seven years old, I was adopted by Yvonne and Raoul Meyer in December 1946.

During the Second World War, the Meyers lost, not only paintings, but all of their belongings. They were forced to hide, first in the South of France, then somewhere in the center of France, but that did not prevent my father from providing the Resistance with information on German troop movements at great personal risk to himself.

After the war, the Meyers, my adoptive parents, recovered most of their assets including some of their paintings. But there were still a number of works that went missing. They rarely spoke of them, out of concern for me because they knew that my entire family had been annihilated. There were moments, though, when I knew that they had not forgotten anything. And I knew as well that I should never forget anything.

I view this quest as a two-pronged duty to remember: a duty to my biological family and a duty to my adoptive family. Do not think for a moment that any of this is easy. It forces me to question my whole existence. I am not in the habit of forgetting my roots, nor the debt that I owe to those who raised me.

I find all of this very difficult. But I simply cannot surrender and say: “oh well…” That is out of the question.

Because this is also about a duty to seek justice.

The Jewish victims of those barbaric acts have every right to see justice done to their surviving murderers. That has been the mission of the Klarsfeld family at great cost to their own peace of mind.

The victims’ heirs also have an obligation to find what was stolen from them. In this respect, there cannot be any statute of limitations.

I cannot conceive that the University of Oklahoma could aid and abet those crimes in any form. The family that donated the paintings, including “The Shepherdess”, did so without realizing the dubious history of some of them. Had they known, there is no doubt in my mind that they would have restituted our painting to us out of a deep sense of justice and dignity. I was told that a member of the family declared that there was nothing in this bequest that would preclude restitution of the painting.

I am full of admiration for America and am deeply grateful for the sacrifices made by Americans in helping to restore freedom to Europe.

Today, I simply ask that you do the right thing. This has nothing to do with money. It is about justice and a duty to remember.

Restitution is a posthumous victory for the victims over barbaric behavior. And please remember that those events occurred barely 70 years ago.

I understand that this letter is an English translation of my words expressed in French.

Would you have any questions, please let me know.

Sincerely yours,

Dr.Léone Noëlle Meyer

Cc: Guy L. Patton
University of Oklahoma Foundation, Inc.
100 Timberdell Road
Norman, OK 73019-0685

Further comments from Léone Meyer can be found in her Open Letter to the People of Oklahoma (February 11, 2014), graciously hosted by Mr. Brian Payne.

Friday, 9 May 2014

The Pissarro Painting in the News (Daily Mail and ARIS)

There was an updated article on the Pissarro painting in today's Daily Mail. It offers a fairly detailed description of the painting's story, and explains how it arrived at the Fred Jones Museum, where it remains on display today. Here's a snippet of the article, followed by commentary by ARIS, a New York-based art title insurance company and experts in the field of art provenance:

January 19, 2014 - Daughter of former owner of a painting stolen by Nazis is suing the University of Oklahoma in hopes of getting it back

DAILY MAIL - The sole heir of Raoul Meyer, a Jewish businessman who lost his art collection including a Camille Pissarro painting during WWII, has sued the University of Oklahoma (OU) in United States District Court for the Southern District of New York to recover the painting and damages. In 1953, Mr. Meyer was unsuccessful in a lawsuit against a Swiss art dealer to recover the painting because his claim was deemed untimely under Swiss law after the five-year statute of limitations had passed. The painting has been exhibited at OU’s museum since 2000 when it was donated as part of a larger donation of important French Impressionist paintings by Mr. and Mrs. Weitzenhoffer, good faith buyers who bought the painting from a New York gallery and were unaware of the prior Nazi theft.
[Read the rest of the article here]

ARIS Commentary: 
The Meyer-OU dispute highlights common financial, moral and legal issues surrounding allegedly Nazi-looted artworks in public museum or university collections including in particular the conflict and outcome determinative differences between the ownership laws of the United States and civil code jurisdictions such as Switzerland. OU and its trustees face a difficult quandary of either paying for litigation defense costs and relying upon the 1953 Swiss judicial ruling with uncertain legal outcome or restituting the painting and losing a significant, valuable artwork in the collection, possibly in breach of the 2000 donation. The art market legal title risk and unique public trust, fiduciary predicament facing the U.S. nonprofit museum community, its leadership and trustees is discussed in greater depth in an ARIS technical paper (see ARIS News, April 23, 2013).

Oklahoma House Committee to Discuss Painting

A hearing has been scheduled at the Oklahoma Capitol on Monday to discuss the issue of the painting “Shepherdess Bringing in Sheep” (“Bergère rentrant des moutons,” 1886) by Camille Pissarro, currently held by the University of Oklahoma at their Fred Jones Museum. The hearing is set from 9 am to 11 am, Monday, May 12, in Room 108 at the Oklahoma Capitol.

This is the first time a State legislature has ever intervened in an art restitution case.

More details about the hearing can be found at the McCarville Report.

Learn more about the ownership issues surrounding the painting "Shepherdess Bringing in Sheep."