Oklahoma U. should repatriate this Nazi-looted artwork to its owner

1826718820This artwork, painted by Dutch-French impressionist Camille Pissarro in 1886, is in the University of Oklahoma’s art collection, donated years ago by oil tycoon Aaron Weitzenhoffer’s wife.

In the art world, “provenance” is a big deal. Basically, the term refers to the chain of ownership and possession of an artwork, and this information often is used to authenticate important or valuable art objects. During the war, the Nazis stole a vast amount of European art; and, in those cases, provenance has more to do with establishing legal title and reuniting purloined works of known authenticity to their rightful owners.

Before the war, “Shepherdess Bringing In Sheep” was owned by Raoul Mayer; this part of its provenance is documented in Swiss records. When Nazis took property, they didn’t give receipts for it.  Weizenhoffer bought it from a New York gallery in 1956. He likely was what the law calls a “bona fide purchaser,” i.e., he didn’t know it was stolen.  But the law on this, at least in America, is clear: While an act of theft can alter physical possession, it can never, under any circumstances, alter legal title.

Stolen property remains the property of the person it was stolen from, regardless of where it is, or how many times it subsequently changes hands, and also regardless of the innocence of subsequent purchases. While unwittingly possessing stolen property isn’t a crime, a subsequent bona fide purchaser doesn’t own the property and is out of luck.

Mayer’s daughter, Leone Meyer, 75, who lives in Paris, claims the Nazis stole this painting from her father and has hired a lawyer to get it back.  According to ABC News, Oklahoma University’s president, David Boren, has said “the school does not want to keep any items it does not legitimately own.” So far, so good.

But these are weasel words, because “Boren and the school have opposed the lawsuit on largely procedural grounds, saying the school has sovereign immunity and that Meyer was not diligent in pursuing her claim and had sued in New York rather than Oklahoma as a ‘forum shopping strategy’ to avoid Oklahoma’s more restrictive statute of limitations.” That’s not a position that would be taken by an ethical person genuinely concerned about whether his institution’s possession of an artwork worth millions of dollars is legitimate.

That’s a “gotcha” argument pulled out of a hat as a tactic to avoid delving into the painting’s provenance and resolving the case based on legal chain of title. If, in fact, “Shepherdess Bringing In Sheep” was stolen from Raoul Mayer by the Nazis, then Oklahoma University doesn’t own it and can’t keep it. Boren, a lawyer, knows that. He also knows Oklahoma University can’t show an unbroken chain of title back to Raoul Mayer; if they could, they would, and put this matter to rest that way. In other words, if this case is tried on the merits, the university will lose in court.

Refusing to return this painting is like someone keeping a stolen puppy when its true owner shows up on his doorstep and demands its return.

ncf_a_boren_195meyer-noelPhotos: Pissarro’s “Shepherdess Bringing In Sheep”, Oklahoma University president and lawyer David Boren, Holocaust survivor Leone Meyer

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