OKLAHOMA CITY (Reuters) - A 128-year-old French impressionist painting plundered by the Nazis during World War Two has become a political football in Oklahoma, with lawmakers calling for its immediate return and the state’s pre-eminent university looking to keep the work.
A Frenchwoman who says the art was stolen from her family has filed a lawsuit against the University of Oklahoma (OU), where its art museum now possesses the painting, “Shepherdess Bringing in Sheep” by Camille Pissarro.
Paul Wesselhoft, a Republican representative for Oklahoma City, is sponsoring a resolution he hopes to steer through the House next week calling for the painting to be returned. He said keeping it on display would be embarrassing for the state and the school.
“It is the right and moral thing to do for OU to return this painting to the Jewish family from which the Nazis plundered it,” Wesselhoft said on Thursday. “Keeping this painting is an embarrassment. I‘m ashamed that it’s in the museum.”
There is general agreement that the Pissarro painting was one of the numerous artworks stolen by the Nazis.
When Paris fell in World War Two, German troops looted museums, galleries and personal collections across France, including artwork owned by Parisian businessman Raoul Meyer, who had a large collection of French impressionist paintings.
His daughter, Leone Meyer, said it was time for the painting to come home and last year filed a lawsuit in federal court against the university and its foundation and art galleries.
The lawsuit states that the painting, which measures 18-1/4 inches by 15 inches (46.4 cms by 38 cms), was registered as a plundered artwork that once belonged to the family and entered the United States without the family’s knowledge in 1956.
“Oklahoma, as most U.S. jurisdictions, has accepted the common law rule that no one, not even a good faith purchaser for value, can obtain good title to stolen property,” according to court documents filed for the family.
A university spokesman said the school is honoring a court decision made in 1953 in Switzerland that allowed the painting to remain in the United States.
It argues the painting passed through many hands and was purchased in good faith from a New York art gallery by Aaron Weitzenhoffer in 1956. When his wife, Clara died in 2000, the Pissarro painting was among 33 pieces of art donated to OU’s Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art.
“The highly regarded Jewish family from Oklahoma who gave the painting to us also had friends and family members endangered at the time of the Holocaust. They are deeply opposed, as is the University, to the theft of art by the Nazis,” University President David Boren said in a statement.
The university has said it will return the work if ordered to do so by the court.
The case is 1:13-cv-03128-CM
Writing by Jon Herskovitz; editing by Gunna Dickson