State Rep. Mike Reynolds said Wednesday he’s concerned a pending lawsuit against the University of Oklahoma over a piece of Nazi-looted art could lead to more claims over other OU paintings with questionable backgrounds.
Speaking at a House Government and Modernization committee meeting Wednesday, Reynolds, R-Oklahoma City, said there are eight or nine other paintings in the OU collection at the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art that have also been identified as possibly stolen or taken in Nazi looting.
The university is facing a lawsuit from Leone Meyer, a woman in Paris who is seeking to recover the painting “Shepherdess Bringing In Sheep.” The 1886 work is by French impressionist artist Camille Pissarro. Meyer alleges the painting was stolen from her father, a Jewish businessman in Paris, during the Nazi occupation of France.
OU officials have refused to return the work, citing a previous court ruling in Switzerland that denied the family's claim to the painting. The university doesn’t dispute the fact that the painting was looted from the family during World War II.
Unless they have reason to question Meyer’s claim to the painting, Reynolds said he’d like to see university officials return it.
“If they have any hard evidence, they need to present it,” he said.
The museum received the painting in 2000 as a part of a collection left to the museum by Clara Weitzenhoffer, wife of Oklahoma oil man Aaron Weitzenhoffer. At the time, university officials said the gift was one of the most important collections of French impressionist paintings given to an American public university.
Other paintings in collection
Meyer’s complaint calls into question a number of other paintings in the museum’s Weitzenhoffer Collection. Although the complaint doesn’t definitively claim the paintings were looted, it points out cases in which theft was possible or even likely.
One of the works, the 1906 painting “La plage de Sainte-Adresse” by Raoul Dufy, was transferred through several dealers who were known to have business relationships with Nazi forces during World War II, according to the complaint.
Another painting, Paul Signac’s 1893 painting “Coast Scene,” once belonged to the Bernheim-Jeune gallery in Paris. It changed hands several times before it was sold to the Weitzenhoffer family. According to the complaint, OU records show no transaction dates or other information, but it was widely known that works in the gallery were confiscated in 1941.
In Wednesday’s meeting, OU associate general counsel Shawnae Robey said the university began researching the provenance of the paintings in the collection before the suit was filed. That research is often a lengthy process, she said, involving documents in many countries, written in many languages.
The university has an obligation to make sure Meyer’s claim is valid before returning the painting, Robey said.
“If you have something that is stolen, you don’t give it back to just anyone,” she said.
Contributing: The Associated Press