NORMAN — A French woman is appealing to the people of Oklahoma to return a painting that the Nazis seized from her family during World War II.
But officials at the University of Oklahoma, where the painting is now on display, say returning the painting would set a bad precedent that would imply OU would automatically give away any asset that someone claims.
In an open letter to the people of Oklahoma, Leone Meyer, a Jewish woman who lives in Paris, asks for the return of Camille Pissarro’s “Shepherdess Bringing in Sheep,” which is hanging in OU’s Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art.
In the letter dated Tuesday, Meyer said seeking the return of the painting “carries within it a tremendous emotional burden.”
Written in French and translated into English, the letter recounts Meyer’s own experience in the Holocaust. Her entire biological family died at Auschwitz between 1942 and 1944. Meyer survived the Holocaust and was adopted by Raoul and Yvonne Meyer in 1946.
The painting was part of a larger collection of works that Nazi troops stole from Raoul Meyer during the Nazi occupation of France. Raoul Meyer recovered most of the works, but a few hadn’t been found when he died in the 1970s, including “Shepherdess Bringing in Sheep.” In her letter, Leone Meyer said her adoptive parents didn’t often mention the works that went missing.
“They rarely spoke of them, out of concern for me because they knew that my entire family had been annihilated,” she wrote. “There were moments, though when I knew that they had not forgotten anything. And I knew as well that I should never forget anything.”
In 1956, Oklahoma oil man Aaron Weitzenhoffer and his wife, Clara, bought the painting from a New York gallery. The painting was a part of an extensive collection of art the couple amassed over decades.
Clara Weitzenhoffer died in 2000, leaving 33 pieces of art to the OU museum, including “Shepherdess Bringing in Sheep.” At the time, university officials called the gift one of the most important collections of French impressionist paintings given to an American public university.
Leone Meyer is suing OU to try to recover the painting. The lawsuit was filed in May in federal court in New York. A hearing in the case is expected in March. But university officials have refused to return the work, citing a 1953 ruling in a Swiss court denying the family’s claim to the painting.
In a statement, OU President David Boren said the university and the Weitzenhoffer family are “deeply opposed” to the theft of Jewish-owned art by the Nazis.
Boren notes that the Weitzenhoffers, who are Jewish, also had friends and family endangered during the Holocaust.
Boren said the university would comply with the decision the court ultimately reaches. While the university doesn’t want to keep anything it doesn’t legitimately own, Boren said returning the painting before the court reaches its decision would set “a bad precedent that the university will automatically give away other people’s gifts to us to anyone who claims them.”
In the letter, Meyer says her efforts to recover the painting are part of her duty to both her biological family and her adoptive family.
“Do not think for a moment that any of this is easy,” she writes. “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.”
The case has prompted public demands for the university to return the painting to Meyer. An online petition was filed on the website Change.org calling on OU to return the painting “to its rightful heir, Dr. Leone Meyer, daughter of Raoul Meyer.”