US lawmakers call on school to return stolen Pissarro

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OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — More than two dozen Oklahoma legislators signed a resolution Monday calling for the University of Oklahoma to return a painting by Pissarro that was stolen by the Nazis during World War II and to research whether any of its other works may have been stolen.

The resolution by state Rep. Paul Wesselhöft is the latest action involving impressionist Camille Pissarro 1886 painting "Shepherdess Bringing in Sheep," which hangs in the university's Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art.

"It is simply shameful that the University of Oklahoma would choose to resist this attempt to right a wrong," Wesselhöft said. "These 26 authors who filed this resolution want to be on the right side of history."

The university is enmeshed in a legal dispute with a French Holocaust survivor, Leone Meyer, who says she is the painting's rightful heir. She filed a federal lawsuit in New York seeking the painting's return, and the case was transferred last month to the U.S. District Court in Oklahoma City.

The resolution, if approved, only expresses the will or intent of the Legislature and does not have the force and effect of law. It would have no bearing on the lawsuit.

The painting was purchased in 1957 for $14,000, but is now worth between $500,000 and $700,000, said Pierre Ciric, Meyer's attorney.

In a statement Monday, university officials contend that they have repeatedly tried to find a "mutually agreeable resolution" and had even agreed to meet with Meyer and her representatives in Paris.

"While that offer has not yet been accepted, our goal continues to be to seek a mutually acceptable resolution to Plaintiff's claim or, if she prefers, to continue with the legal process and abide by the results," the officials said.

Ciric met with Oklahoma lawmakers last month during a private screening of "Woman in Gold," a film starring Helen Mirren about an elderly Jewish woman's attempt to reclaim artwork stolen by the Nazis.

"My client only wants one thing — it's the painting back," Ciric told The Associated Press on Monday. "She's not looking for any financial settlement or anything like this. She wants her painting back before she dies."

Oklahoma oil tycoon Aaron Weitzenhoffer and his wife, Clara, bought the painting from a New York gallery in 1957. When Clara Weitzenhoffer died in 2000, the Pissarro painting was among more than 30 works valued at about $50 million that she donated to the university.

The university does not dispute that the painting was stolen by the Nazis, but it maintains that the full history of its ownership history is not yet known. The school cites a 1953 Swiss court ruling that the painting's post-war owners had properly established ownership and claims that the Weitnzenhoffer family purchased the painting in good faith from an art dealer "with legitimate and verified title consistent with the Swiss court decision."

"Simply transferring the painting, which was properly acquired, without first knowing all the facts would, among other things, set a very poor precedent and risk disgracing all prior good-faith purchasers and owners of the painting," the university said in its statement.

Ciric says the Swiss lawsuit was the result of litigation between Meyer's father, Raoul Meyer, and Christoph Bernoulli, an art dealer who sold the painting after World War II. In that case, Raoul Meyer was unsuccessful because he could not prove Bernoulli's bad faith in acquiring the painting, which Ciric says was the legal standard in place at the time.

But Ciric says a number of experts have widely recognized "that the legal system in Switzerland after World War II was not a fair forum for Holocaust survivors filing art claims."


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