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Case Preview: Meyer v. Bd. of Regents of the U. of Oklahoma, or How long will Oklahoma herd Pissarro “Sheep”?

Camille Pissarro, "Sheperdess Bringing in Sheep/Bergere rentrant des moutons" (1886)
Camille Pissarro, “La Bergere rentrant des moutons/Shepherdess Bringing in Sheep” (1886)

On Nov. 22, 2013, New York Country Lawyers’ Association held its 6th Annual Art Litigation and Dispute Resolution Practice Institute. Raymond Dowd, partner with Dunnington, Bartholow & Miller LLP presented an impassioned keynote address entitled “Ethics and Nazi Looted Art, which he began by decrying the headline of a recent The New York Times article apparently legitimizing Nazi property laws (See Enduring Nazi Law Impedes Recovery of Art). Dowd appealed to the practitioners, art historians and reporters in the room to speak up against the film of legitimacy that seemingly condones the status quo of keeping Nazi-era looted artworks where they ended up years and decades after the World War II, and to question “the toxic sludge,” or the artworks that were donated to the American institutions despite their apparent Nazi looted provenance and unlawful taking from the original rightful owners. In addition to shaming the collectors and auction houses, Dowd spoke fervently against the American museums that have used technical defenses — statute of limitations and laches — to hold on to artworks that were clearly stolen during the war. While his arguments for reviewing the acquisitions of artworks sold from the German museums under the ‘degenerate’ guise is more difficult to support, Dowd’s belief that works from private collections must be returned to the rightful owners is absolutely right.

Yet, despite the evidence of the American goodwill and dedication to effectuating the return of looted property, including various declarations and guidelines promulgated in the United States and abroad (see for example Pragmatic not Sympathetic US rejects ADR forum for Nazi looted Art), including the American Association of Museums and the Association of the Art Museum Directors in support of provenance research and cooperation with claimants, cases contesting ownership continue appearing on judicial dockets.

On May 9, 2013, Leone Meyer brought a Complaint against the Board of Regents of the University of Oklahoma, David Findlay Galleries, Inc, and other related Defendants in her efforts to recover an 1886 Camille Pissaro oil painting “Shepherdess Bringing in Sheep” (the “Painting”), which was stolen from her father in the 1940s. Leone Meyer is a daughter and heir of Raoul Meyer, a Jewish French businessman who owned this and other impressionist paintings prior to World War II. According to the Complaint, the Painting in dispute was looted and seized by Nazi Occupational forces. It was imported into the United States in 1956, via the David Findlay Galleries, which sold the Painting to Aaron and Clara Weitzenhoffer, who in turn bequest it and other works to the University of Oklahoma’s Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art in 2000.

Plaintiff is seeking full and complete restitution of the Painting on the theory of unjust enrichment. She alleges that Defendants failed to conduct provenance research of the work and investigate ownership, which would lead the trail to Raoul Meyer’s heirs. According to the Complaint, Meyer’s collection was deposited with “Credit Commercial de France” in 1940 but the property was seized  and transferred to a German collecting point at the Louvre Museum. After the War, artworks missing from the Meyer’s collection were listed among French cultural losses in “Repertoire des Biens Spolies en France Pendant la Guerre de 1939-1945/Registry of Assets Looted in France During the War of 1939-1945. The Pissaro Painting is listed in the “Registry.” Furthermore, the Painting was sited by Raoul Meyer in 1953 but it disappeared before the family could negotiate its return.

The claims for relief include Replevin, Conversion, Constructive Trust, Declaratory Relief and Restitution.  The case has been assigned to District Judge McMahon.

Attorney for Plaintiff is Pierre Ciric, of The Ciric Law Firm.

Source: Complaint, Meyer v. Bd. of Regents of the U. of Oklahoma, et al, 13-CIV-3128 (S.D.N.Y. filed May 9, 2013); The New York Times.