Four lawmakers are calling on University of Oklahoma officials to return a painting that Nazi troops stole from a Jewish family in Paris during World War II.
A resolution directing OU officials to return Camille Pissarro’s “Shepherdess Bringing In Sheep” to the Meyer family was introduced Monday in the Oklahoma House of Representatives. Leone Meyer, a member of the family, is suing OU in New York federal court to recover the painting, which is hanging in OU’s Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art.
Rep. Paul Wesselhoft, R-Moore, said he hoped the nonbinding resolution would encourage OU officials to do “the right and moral thing.”
OU President David Boren said the resolution was unnecessary. Boren said the university would comply with whatever decision the court reaches.
OU officials have cited a 1953 ruling in Switzerland that denied the Meyer family’s claim. That ruling was based in part on a finding that the family waited too long to make its claim. The fact that Nazi troops stole the painting from the family is not in dispute.
“The university does not want to keep any items which it does not legitimately own,” Boren said. “However, the challenge to the university, as the current custodian of the painting, is to avoid setting a bad precedent that the university will automatically give away other people’s gifts to us to anyone who claims them.”
Wesselhoft, one of the bill’s four authors, said the fact that the painting is hanging in the museum is an embarrassment to Oklahoma residents and insulting to the state’s Jewish community. Wesselhoft also has passed out fliers in front of Moore’s Warren Theatre calling on the university to return the painting to the Meyer family.
Edie Roodman, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Oklahoma City, said she hoped the painting eventually would be returned to the Meyer family.
“I think it’s certainly of concern within the Jewish community that a painting that was plundered under the Nazis was not returned to its rightful owner,” Roodman said.
Roodman noted that other, more prominent museums have returned works of art when they found themselves in similar situations. Last year, the Louvre in Paris returned several Nazi-looted paintings to the surviving relatives of their pre-World War II owners.
About the painting
“Shepherdess Bringing In Sheep” 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 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.
Joining Wesselhoft in sponsoring the resolution calling on OU to return the painting were Rep. Mike Reynolds, R-Oklahoma City; Rep. Mike Ritze, R-Broken Arrow, and Rep. John Bennett, R-Sallisaw.