Eighty-one-year-old heiress says £1.3 million work is a ‘symbol of all those dead people who never came back’
A Holocaust survivor is locked in a dispute with an American university over the fate of a masterpiece stolen from her family by the Nazis during the Second World War.
Léone-Noëlle Meyer, 81, an heiress and former pediatrician, is fighting to keep the painting by Jewish impressionist Camille Pissarro in France.
The oil painting of a countryside scene, titled ‘Shepherdess Bringing In the Sheep’, is worth 1.5 million euros (around £1.3m) and belonged to Ms Meyer’s late adoptive father before it was stolen by the Nazis in 1942.
Ms Meyer’s biological family were murdered in Auschwitz. She was adopted aged seven after the war by Yvonne and Raoul Meyer, an art lover and businessman who ran a French department store.
“I owe my parents a debt of gratitude - they were art lovers and had chosen this work. This is why I would like the Shepherdess to stay at the Musée d'Orsay,” Ms Meyer told the JC. “My father himself had tried to make it come back after recovering other works that had been stolen from him.”
"The history of this painting is mixed with that of the country and a period. It is the symbol of all those dead people who never came back. I would like the painting to come back," she added.
The painting resurfaced in New York in 1956 when it was bought by art collector Aaron Weitzenhoffer and his wife Clara, who bequeathed it to the University of Oklahoma in 2000 as part of a large collection of French Impressionist art.
The painting, now displayed in the Musée d'Orsay in Paris, is at the centre of a mediation injunction and separate court cases on each side of the Atlantic.
Ms Meyer’s lawyer said the university’s Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art failed to research the provenance of Shepherdess Bringing In the Sheep before accepting the donation.
"If they had done their due diligence, they would have found out that the painting is on the registre des biens spoliés, which is a list published between 1947 and 1949 by the central office of restitution of the French government of works of art that were stolen by the Nazis. This painting is on that list,” Ron Soffer said.
The Pissarro painting is scheduled to return to the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art in July for a period of three years under a 2016 agreement Ms Meyer seeks to overturn.
The settlement recognised Ms Meyer as the painting’s rightful owner but stipulated it should initially be exhibited in France for a period of five years and perpetually rotate between Oklahoma and France every three years.
The agreement became “unworkable” when the Musée d'Orsay refused Ms Meyer’s donation, her lawyer said. “The Musée d'Orsay does not want to take upon itself the obligation to see that the painting goes back and forth forever between Paris and Oklahoma.
“The museum is a public museum and it would not take upon itself an open-ended, perpetual budgetary expense, so it was refused. The whole settlement fell apart,” Mr Soffer said.
However, Thaddeus Stauber, lawyer for the university, said the 2016 deal was a “really wonderful, first-of-its-kind US French art sharing agreement.”
“We’re confident the French and the US courts will honour it and respect it and that in July of this year the work will come back to Oklahoma for display. We look forward to the conclusion of it.”