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Will a Looted Pissarro End Up in Oklahoma, or France?

PARIS — For greater than 70 years, Léone Meyer’s household has fought to reclaim a looted portray, and but she can not bear the considered displaying it in her Left Bank residence, throughout from the River Seine.

The small work, by Camille Pissarro, exhibits a shepherdess tending her flock, and hangs not far-off on the Musée d’Orsay, with different valuable French Impressionist work. But the peaceable countryside scene from 1886 is fraught with a again story of plunder, household tragedy and authorized battles that stretch from Paris to Oklahoma.

Dr. Meyer’s mom, grandmother, uncle and brother died in Auschwitz. Her father hid the portray in a French financial institution that was looted in 1941 by the Nazis, and the work vanished in the murky universe of artwork market collaborators and middlemen. Decades later, in 2012, she found the whereabouts of “La Bergère,” or “Shepherdess Bringing in Sheep,” in the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art, on the University of Oklahoma. In 2016, she brokered a compromise to rotate it between the college and a French museum.



The authorized tug-of-war began anew after Dr. Meyer sought to vary the settlement and completely hold the portray in France, frightening courtroom clashes about its future this month in Paris and the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Oklahoma.

“When something is stolen, I expect it to be returned,” Dr. Meyer, a former pediatrician, mentioned in an interview. “I have no other interest than to recover this painting in the memory of my family.”

She felt strain to signal the settlement in 2016 after 4 years of protracted negotiations, she mentioned. The doc, she added, contained a translation error from English to French in a part referring to the portray’s possession, however she had neglected it on the time.

“I thought it was better to see the portrait that I had never seen in my life,” she mentioned. “It was better that it came back to France. I accepted the deal with the idea to renegotiate it.”

On Tuesday, a judicial tribunal in Paris weighing whether or not to dam the work from being shipped out of France ordered Dr. Meyer and the college to satisfy with mediators. Earlier this month, a federal decide in Oklahoma threatened to carry Dr. Meyer in contempt if she continued to pursue litigation in France.

A trial is scheduled for Jan. 19 in Paris to listen to Dr. Meyer’s arguments for preserving the work in France, and a second listening to is about for March on whether or not to ban transport overseas.

Thaddeus Stauber, a lawyer who represents the University of Oklahoma, mentioned it opposes mediation, as a result of, in its view, the matter has been settled by its contract with Dr. Meyer.

In November, the American Alliance of Museums and the Association of Art Museum Directors sent a letter to the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art to specific their assist for the college’s battle to keep up the settlement.

In one other signal of the intensifying battle, French officers from a state fee that considers looted artwork work claims are analyzing data offered by Dr. Meyer and her legal professionals that raises questions in regards to the provenance of different artworks that have been donated by an Oklahoma oil tycoon, together with the Pissarro, to the college museum. But such a assessment may simply take greater than a yr, mentioned Michel Jeannoutot, the fee’s president.

Throughout the years of negotiations main as much as the 2016 settlement, the college by no means denied that the portray was looted by the Nazis. It objected to returning the work on procedural grounds, arguing in a 2015 assertion that giving again the portray would threat “disgracing all prior good-faith purchasers” equivalent to its donor, who purchased it from a New York gallery in 1957.

“Our position continues to be that we worked through it collectively, in 2016, and we reached a resolution,” Mr. Stauber mentioned.

The Meyer household’s pursuit of the Pissarro exhibits the cussed resolve of two generations. After the warfare, Raoul Meyer — Dr. Meyer’s father, who was the longtime chairman of the Galeries Lafayette division retailer chain — began the seek for artwork seized in 1941 from his financial institution vault in Southwestern France by the monetary arm of the Nazi occupation.

He recovered most of the lacking works, discovering in 1951 that the shepherdess had ended up with a Swiss purchaser after a collection of trades by artwork market sellers who collaborated with the Nazis. Like his daughter, he additionally negotiated its return, however balked on the phrases of the provided deal; he refused to purchase again his property.

By 1996, Dr. Meyer resumed her father’s quest, hiring consultants to seek for the shepherdess, which had since modified fingers. Dr. Meyer was elected chairman of the Galeries Lafayette firm in 1998, about the identical time that she intensified the hunt by organizing conferences on looted artwork.

“It would have been easier not to search; much easier,” she mentioned. “Nevertheless, I felt I had to do it.”

She had the monetary sources to enlist skilled researchers, however it was not till 2012 that one among her sons found a clue on a weblog that led to the University of Oklahoma, which had obtained the portray, with different works, in 2000. The ensuing authorized battle over possession ended with the 2016 compromise to switch the portray to France for public show for 5 years, till July 2021, adopted by three-year rotations between Oklahoma and France.

As the deadline to start preparations for the switch again to Oklahoma loomed, Dr. Meyer final yr modified legal professionals and approached the college to change the settlement. Dr. Meyer mentioned she unsuccessfully provided to purchase again the portray. Ideas have been floated about loaning different related works from the Musée d’Orsay to Oklahoma, Dr. Meyer mentioned — maybe different Pissarro work.

Francis Steinbock, a common administrator for the museum, mentioned that the Musée d’Orsay stayed on the sidelines of the dispute. It isn’t a authorized occasion in this “painful situation,” he added, and there have been by no means any formal discussions between the museum and the college about loans. (A 2019 doc seen by The New York Times, nevertheless, exhibits that a Musée d’Orsay official had proposed the thought of a restricted mortgage in place of the shepherdess portray.)

Dr. Meyer mentioned she finally desires to donate the portray to the Musée d’Orsay, however its managers have raised objections to the long-term circumstances of the donation: the price of transporting the work between international locations and the bodily have an effect on that might have on the delicate portray.

There is precedent for such rotations in a authorized dispute; Manet’s “Music in the Tuileries Gardens” travels back and forth every six years between Ireland and England as a part of compromise to settle an possession dispute between the National Gallery in London and Hugh Lane Gallery in Dublin. Mr. Stauber, the Oklahoma college’s lawyer, famous that below the phrases of the settlement with Dr. Meyer, the college paid for transportation to France and can fund its return to the United States.

“Everybody went into this relationship informed with all the facts,” Mr. Stauber mentioned.

But the French authorized view on looted artworks has additionally advanced because the compromise was hammered out with Dr. Meyer. She and her authorized advisers cite a current ruling in one other Pissarro dispute, in which a judge relied on a 1945 French decree to conclude that if a work was plundered through the warfare, all following gross sales are null and void.

After virtually 25 years of looking out and waging authorized battles for the shepherdess, Dr. Meyer stays resolute to proceed her quest. She mentioned she nonetheless remembers the jolt she felt, in 2017, when she noticed the portray for the primary time, just about alone, in the Musée d’Orsay. It’s too emotional, she mentioned, to show such a portray in her residence as a result of it’s seared with household reminiscences.

“I cried,” she mentioned. “It was a terrible emotional shock. I thought of my parents and how they looked at this and why they bought it.”

The shepherdess, she mentioned, belongs in the Musée d’Orsay with a easy plaque dedicated to her household.

“I have a right to my memory; I have a right to justice,” she mentioned. “All of my family members were killed. I can never forget.”

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