Wednesday, July 2, 2014

A Pissarro in Oklahoma, aka "Meyer 13" at the Jeu de Paume

When I reviewed The Monuments Men, I mentioned the Cate Blanchett character, based on the real life Frenchwoman, Rose Valland who worked at the Jeu de Paume and recorded the art stolen from Jewish families like the Rothschilds, the Rosenbergs, and the Meyers, among others. Her work has continued significance today, as the record she made of stolen art proves who really owns it and should possess it. For example, she inventoried the works stolen from Raoul Meyer, one of which is at the center of his family's dispute with the University of Oklahoma. From The Wall Street Journal, Ronald S. Lauder writes:

Meanwhile, Leone Meyer, daughter of Raoul Meyer, a Jewish businessman in Paris during the Nazi occupation, is suing the University of Oklahoma in the hope of recovering "Shepherdess Bringing in Sheep," an 1886 work by French impressionist Camille Pissarro that was stolen from her father's private collection by the Nazis. Over the years the Pissarro had several owners and traveled to Switzerland and New York before arriving at the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art, which is owned by the University of Oklahoma. The school has refused to return the painting, citing a 1950s court ruling in Switzerland that denied the Meyer family's claim on grounds that there was a five-year window for such lawsuits. That the Nazis stole the painting is not in dispute.

Such refusals are not only immoral, they fly in the face of postwar agreements. The Nazi thefts from 1933-45 are the greatest displacement of artwork in human history. FDR and Churchill recognized the vast scope of the thefts early in World War II, and in 1943 the Allies declared their intention to invalidate all property transfers—even ones made to look legal—that were part of the Nazis' looting. Official Allied policy was that all governments should work to return stolen property to rightful owners.

After decades in which this issue was conveniently ignored, the U.S. State Department sponsored an international conference in Washington, D.C., in 1998 to resolve the many and complicated issues surrounding the repatriation of Nazi-looted art. The conference introduced 11 protocols, known as the Washington Principles. The U.S. and the 43 other countries that adopted the principles agreed to look for Nazi-looted art in their public art collections and to resolve restitution claims in a just and fair manner.

The Washington Principles amount to these two truths: Art museums and their collections should not be built with stolen property. Passion for art should not displace respect for justice. . . .

Refusing to return stolen art because of the passage of time—not yet 70 years since Auschwitz was liberated—deprives museums of any claim to moral high ground.

There have been museums that have demonstrated clear vision, such as the Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens in Jacksonville, Fla., which honored a claim by Ms. Saher involving art from the same collection that is the subject of her claim against the Norton Simon Museum.

Yet too many art museums in the U.S. and Europe seem to have forgotten a simple rule: There should be no impediments to responsible behavior. Above all, we in the art community should not perpetuate the crime against humanity committed by Hitler when he stole Jewish art collections and murdered their owners.

Raoul Meyer was not just any businessman in Paris--he was one of the owners of the Galeries Lafayette on Blvd. Haussmann. That great department store was taken over by the Vichy government and remained open during the Nazi occupation of Paris. One of the other owners survived the Buchenwald camp. Here is the record of the Pissarro; Rolland recorded it as "Meyer 13". I think the University of Oklahoma should return the painting to the family. What do you think?

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