NORMAN — News that a painting hanging in the University of Oklahoma's Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art was seized by the Nazis during World War II prompted public demands that the university return the painting to the family that owned it before the war.
But answers in cases like this one are rarely as simple as that, an art law expert said, and outcomes can often vary widely from one case to the next.
The painting is “Shepherdess Bringing In Sheep,” an 1886 work by French impressionist artist Camille Pissarro. It was seized as part of the personal collection of Raoul Meyer, a Jewish businessman in Paris, during the Nazi occupation of France.
Meyer's daughter, Leone Meyer, is suing OU in hopes of recovering the painting. But OU officials have refused to return the work, citing a previous court ruling in Switzerland that denied the family's claim to the painting.
In response to the issue, local residents contacted OU officials and took to social media demanding the university return the painting to the Meyer family.
On Facebook, Oklahoma City resident Gary Bourlier said it was “sad the lady has to sue when it's obvious the right thing is to give it back.”
“Here's an opportunity to right a wrong, this shouldn't be difficult,” Bourlier said.
Norman resident Robert Cole agreed, saying on Facebook that returning the painting would allow Oklahoma to see itself in a “clearer, brighter light.”
“This is one painting that was pilfered from a family home,” Cole said. “Not only is the remedy easy for us, it comforts the surviving members of families who were the systematic target of a modern horror.”
Deborah Tussey, a professor at the Oklahoma City University School of Law, said a number of regulations exist that require museums to look into the provenance of any artworks they require, particularly with regard to the Nazi era. If museum officials find evidence that the painting was seized during the war, the museum is expected to make that information public, she said.
Although those regulations might seem clear-cut, they generally only exist in museum organizations' bylaws and they don't carry the force of law. That means museums can exercise a certain amount of discretion when deciding whether to follow them.
“They're not laws,” Tussey said. “The guidelines are there, but they're not obligatory.”
To confuse the matter further, laws regarding stolen art don't always agree from one country to the next. In the United States, the title to a stolen artwork can't be transferred from the thief to a buyer. But under Swiss law, someone who buys a stolen painting in good faith can obtain a title to the work, Tussey said.
OU officials wouldn't respond to questions regarding the lawsuit. But in a motion to dismiss the lawsuit, OU's attorney argues that the Meyer family waited too long to try to claim the painting. Tussey said that argument is becoming common in cases regarding looted art.
In 2007, a similar case involving actress Elizabeth Taylor came before the U.S. Supreme Court. In that case, the family of a Jewish woman who fled Germany in 1939 sued Taylor over a Vincent van Gogh painting she owned. The woman was forced to sell the painting, “View of the Asylum and Chapel at Saint-Remy,” before fleeing to South Africa.
In that case, the court ruled in Taylor's favor, saying the family had waited too long to file their claim.
In 2005, the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, was faced with a similar challenge when a French family came forward saying a painting in the museum's collection had been stolen from the family.
The painting, J.M.W. Turner's “Glaucus and Scylla,” was seized in 1943 and sold at an auction of Jewish property. The painting changed hands several times before the Kimbell Art Museum's foundation bought it in 1966.
When the family came forward to claim the painting, museum officials began investigating the painting's provenance, said Nancy Edwards, the museum's curator of European art and head of academic services. Members of the family had compiled a number of records, meaning the process went more quickly, Edwards said.
In that case, the museum returned the painting to the family and bought it back at auction. The painting is on display at the Kimbell today.
Although that solution worked, Edwards said no two cases of looted art are alike, and no solution fits every problem.
When a question about a painting's provenance arises, museum staff may spend weeks looking through catalogs and other documents. Occasionally, they find that what they had thought they knew about a painting wasn't true.
“That can be a very long, very tedious process,” Edwards said. “What you learn is that you don't take anything for granted.”