French Heiress Ends Years-Long Legal Battle Over Nazi-Looted Pissarro Painting

A French heiress has given up her legal battle to reclaim a Camille Pissarro painting looted from her parents by the Nazis.

Léone Meyer said in a statement on Tuesday that she had “no choice” but to abandon her years-long efforts to donate the small canvas to the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, where it is currently on display.

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Ownership of the 1886 painting, titled La Bergère Rentrant des Moutons (Shepherdess Bringing in Sheep), has been transferred to University of Oklahoma in Norman, where it had been exhibited until 2017. The university has agreed to honor an agreement that would see the painting exhibited on rotating basis at the school’s Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art and institutions in France. The University of Oklahoma’s foundation said it did not “intend … to retain title to the painting long-term,” and that it will ensure the Pissarro is placed in a French public institution or the U.S. Art in Embassies program run by the Department of State.

“I have now regained my freedom at a price that I fully accept,” Meyer said in a statement, ending a court case that spanned two continents and a prior settlement.

Meyer, a survivor of the Holocaust, first discovered the painting in 2012 in the collection of the University of Oklahoma, which had been gifted the work in 2000. After a three-year-long negotiation period, Meyer and the university agreed in 2016 that the work would return to France, where it would be exhibited for five years, then rotate every three years between the university and a French institution.

But at the end of the five-year term Meyer contested the contract and attempted to gift the work to the Musée d’Orsay. The French museum refused the donation, citing the insurance risks of a perpetual loan agreement. Meyer’s lawyers argued that her claim superseded the university’s, pointing to a 1945 French law stating that “no possessor can prevail against the legitimate owner of a work stolen by the Nazis.”

Paris courts subsequently sided with the university, ruling that the 2016 settlement overrode French restitution laws. The American Alliance of Museums and the Association of Art Museum Directors also issued statements in support of the university’s claim.

Meyer has described the retrieval of the painting as a “quest” dedicated to her mother, grandmother, and older brother, who died at Auschwitz. After the war she was adopted from a Paris orphanage by Yvonne and Raoul Meyer. The couple’s art collection, which also included a Picasso, a Renoir, and a Bonnard, was stolen from their bank vault during the Nazi occupation of Paris. Her adoptive father attempted to recover the Pissarro from a Swiss dealer in 1953, but had his claim rebuffed.

“For almost 10 years, I have battled in order to obtain the recognition of the principle that the restitution of a pillaged work of art should occur independently of any other consideration related to its provenance, its history or its successive ‘owners,’” Meyer said in a statement on Tuesday.

“Some will regret this perpetual rotation and others will celebrate it,” she continued, “But the students of the of the University of Oklahoma will remember that this work belonged to Yvonne and Raoul Meyer and that it was pillaged by the Nazis in France in 1941.”


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