French heir renounces title to Nazi-looted Pissarro painting found in Oklahoma

The Art Newspaper 1 June 2021
By David D'Arcy

The Shepherdess Bringing in Sheep will return this summer to the University of Oklahoma, which will seek a French partner for future exchanges

The heir to a French Jewish family that owned a Pissarro painting looted by the Nazis has abandoned her effort to keep the work in France, instead transferring ownership to the University of Oklahoma, where it previously hung.

In a new settlement filed with US District Court in Oklahoma City and in France, Léone-Noëlle Meyer, 81, scrapped her recent lawsuits intended to reverse a 2016 settlement with the university that established a joint interest in the work. This included an agreement to alternate display of the painting in the US and France every three years, after an initial five-year showing at the Musée d’Orsay. But recently, Meyer sought to keep the work in France, arguing that she was unable to donate it to a French institution with the sharing scheme in place.

Now, after two French courts ruled against Meyer, La Bergère Rentrant des Moutons (or The Shepherdess Bringing in Sheep) (1886), will return to Oklahoma this summer. The university will take full ownership of the work and aims to find one or more French partners to continue the three-year exchange, eventually donating it to an institution in France. A fallback plan would be to show the picture in France through the US State Department’s Art in Embassies programme.

The amended settlement is the latest bump in a rocky journey. The painting was owned by Yvonne and Raoul Meyer, a former chairman of the Galéries Lafayette department store. When the Nazis invaded France, the work was placed in a vault outside Bordeaux, from which it was seized in 1941. Meyer traced it in the early 1950s to Switzerland, yet the looted work was unrecoverable under Swiss law, even though its pillaging was not in dispute.

In 1957, the picture was sold, in New York, to the Wietzenhoffer family, Oklahoma oil plutocrats and philanthropists who donated it in 2000 to the Fred Jones Jr Museum at the University of Oklahoma (OU).

The Pissarro, now valued at more than $2 million, was tracked there by Léone-Noëlle Meyer, Raoul Meyer’s adopted daughter, a Jewish war orphan whose entire biological family was killed in Nazi camps. A retired pediatrician, Meyer demanded the painting’s return, but OU dug in its heels argueing that the Wietzenhoffer bought the painting in good faith before they gave it to the university, finally proposing the exchange. When Meyer sought to overturn that settlement last year, she claimed she was forced into the 2016 deal.

Meyer, one of France’s richest women, is said to have been worn down by months of legal sparring, by the threat of stiff fines for abandoning the 2016 agreement, and by a recent French court decision siding with OU. Another French ruling, expected tomorrow, was preempted by the amended settlement, which notes that Meyer paid $500,000 to implement the reaffirmed exchange arrangement. She is appealing the US court’s fines (at $1,500 a day), and OU is not opposing her appeal.  

“After all these years, I have no other choice but to take heed of the inescapable conclusion that it will be impossible to persuade the different parties to whose attention I have brought this matter,” Meyer said unapologetically in a prepared statement. “I was heard but not listened to.”
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