Raphael Meyer pleaded Monday with Oklahomans to assist his mother, a 74-year-old Holocaust survivor, as she tries to recover a painting stolen from her family by the Nazis in France during World War II.
Meyer described how he went from elation to disbelief when he found out the painting was at the University of Oklahoma’s art museum and then learned OU would fight to keep it.
“At first, I just couldn’t believe it,” Meyer told an Oklahoma House committee. “After all, who would want to keep a stolen property?”
School officials have refused to return “Shepherdess Bringing in Sheep” and are opposing a lawsuit filed in federal court in New York to recover it. OU officials haven’t disputed that the painting was stolen from the family during World War II, but say they need to learn more about the case.
Meyer said his mother, Leone Meyer, helped many people in her career as a pediatrician, including humanitarian medical missions in Central America, South America and Asia.
“But in this case she is the one who needs a little bit of help from the people of Oklahoma in order to get back this stolen property,” he said. “My mother, brothers and myself are simply hoping that the University of Oklahoma, the parent institution of the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art, would be brave enough to do what they know is right.
“I simply cannot imagine a future where a public institution in America would actively keep a work of art stolen during the Nazi occupation of France or fight against the rightful owners.”
He said his mother wants to recover the painting to right a wrong, as her parents also wanted to do, and does not intend to resell it.
OU officials cite a 1953 ruling by a Swiss court denying the family’s claim to the painting. They also say there are unresolved questions about its history.
University spokeswoman Catherine Bishop released a statement Monday saying the full history of the painting is not yet known. It was part of a large art bequest to the museum in 2000 by Clara Weitzenhoffer, wife of Oklahoma oil man Aaron Weitzenhoffer.
“Simply transferring the piece without first knowing all the facts would, among other things, set a very poor precedent and risk disgracing all prior good-faith purchasers and owners of the painting (such as the Weitzenhoffers) whose families were gravely victimized during the war,” Bishop said.
“The University will continue with an examination of the painting’s history in order to determine whether any facts or law support Plaintiff’s claim.”
She said the university is seeking a fair resolution to the claim and has offered to meet with Leone Meyer in Paris. Bishop also said the painting is owned by the university foundation, not the university itself.
The 1886 work is by French impressionist artist Camille Pissarro.
Pierre Ciric, an attorney for Leone Meyer, made a presentation to legislators Monday showing how the painting changed hands, including its theft by Nazis on Feb. 22, 1941, from a bank safe where it had been placed by her father, Raoul Meyer.
After the war, Raoul Meyer worked for years to try to find the painting. After he ultimately located it, a Swiss court rejected his claim to recover it, finding he failed to prove that its then-owner purchased it in bad faith.
Ciric said the requirements of the Swiss court are different from those of a U.S. court.
“In the U.S., a thief cannot convey good title,” he said. “The original owner retains title to the stolen object. It does not matter if a subsequent purchaser did not know the object was previously stolen.”
Ciric said Raoul Meyer was given the opportunity to buy the painting from its then-owner but “refused to pay for a painting that was his rightful property.”
The family then lost track of the painting until it surfaced at the OU museum.
Leone Meyer is the sole heir to the painting, Ciric said. During World War II, her family was captured in a Nazi roundup of Jewish people and was murdered at Auschwitz. She was able to survive by hiding with neighbors.
After the war, she was adopted from an orphanage by Raoul Meyer and Yvonne Bader, and was their only child.
March 1940 — Meyer family places art collection, including “Shepherdess Bringing in Sheep,” in bank safe at Credit Commerical de France.
May 1940 — Nazis invade France.
February 1941 — Nazi forces seize painting from bank.
July 1942 — Painting is inventoried at Jeu de Paume, a station for French art stolen by Nazis, and set aside for possible exchange.
August 1944 — Paris is liberated from Nazi occupation.
1944-46 — Painting ends up in Switzerland.
1945 — Raoul Meyer registers painting as looted artwork.
1946 — Christopher Bernoulli acquires painting and sells it to Audre Maus.
1951 — Raoul Meyer discovers Maus with painting in Switzerland, painting is returned to Bernoulli.
1952 — Raoul Meyer sues Bernoulli in Switzerland.
1953 — Swiss court sides with Bernoulli, finding Raoul Meyer failed to prove it was acquired in bad faith.
1956 — Aaron and Clara Weitzenhoffer purchase painting from David Findlay Galleries in New York.
2000 — Clara Weitzenhoffer’s estate bequests painting to OU’s art museum.
March 2012 — Leone Meyer’s family discovers painting at museum.
December 2012 — Leone Meyer demands return of painting.
May 2013 — Leone Meyer files legal complaint seeking painting.
Events according to Pierre Ciric, attorney for Leone Meyer.
In the U.S., a thief cannot convey good title. The original owner retains title to the stolen object. It does not matter if a subsequent purchaser did not know the object was previously stolen.”