Another Epilogue In the Long Saga Of A Looted Pissarro Painting
06/09/2021The long-running dispute over a Pissarro painting has come to a close—yet again—after years of legal wrangling in multiple forums, and after a complex settlement arrangement collapsed in spectacular fashion. As is sadly the case in many stories involving Nazi-era art litigation, there is no dispute that the artwork at issue here was outright looted by Nazi forces in Nazi-occupied France, yet the artwork will not return to the family from whom it was wrested.
We have written on multiple occasions about the long-running dispute between the University of Oklahoma and a claimant seeking to recover a Pissarro painting taken from her family during World War II. Our previous posts contain more detail, but in short, a French woman named Léone Meyer claims that the painting, La Bergère Rentrent des Moutons (“Shepherdess Bringing in Sheep”), was stolen from her adoptive parents by the Nazi regime. (Meyer’s biological family perished in the Holocaust, and she was adopted after the war by the Meyer family, who founded a prominent French department store; Meyer is now one of the richest women in France.) The Meyers had tried to recover the painting after the war, but were unsuccessful; the work had landed in Switzerland, and a Swiss court found that the possessor there had bought the work in good faith and therefore had good title under Swiss law. Years later, the work ended up in the collection of a prominent Oklahoman couple who later bequeathed their art to the University of Oklahoma.
In 2012, Meyer learned that La Bergère was on display at the University’s art museum, and in May of 2013, she sued in federal court in the Southern District of New York, seeking to recover it. The litigation took several twists and turns, including an early ruling that the New York court lacked jurisdiction over the University, and a subsequent transfer to Oklahoma. The case garnered interest from the public and even from state politicians who urged the University to reach a restitution arrangement with Meyer. In 2016, the parties reached a settlement recognizing Meyer’s title but providing for a detailed shared-custody arrangement, with the artwork to be displayed on a rotating basis between France (at a to-be-determined museum) and Oklahoma (at the University’s on-campus museum). The agreement also required Ms. Meyer to, at some point during her lifetime, gift the work to a mutually agreed-upon art institution in France, under which that institution would agree to assume and perform Ms. Meyer’s obligations under the settlement agreement (including the three-year trans-Atlantic rotations). If she wished instead to sell the work to a third party, she would need the University’s consent and the University would share in the proceeds of such a sale.
At the time, we noted, “These provisions are clearly aimed at ensuring that the work remains accessible to the public both in Europe and in Oklahoma, but also represent significant restrictions on what Ms. Meyer—and any institution to which she may ultimately gift La Bergère—can do with this work in the future.”
The Unraveling of the 2016 Settlement
Unfortunately, the 2016 settlement did not work as intended. According to reports, Meyer sought to loan, and ultimately to gift, the work to the famed Musée D’Orsay in Paris—but the museum declined the gift, apparently unwilling to assume the risk and expense of periodically shuttling of the work to and from Oklahoma. In 2020, fearing she would not be able to find an institution willing to take on the terms of the settlement, Meyer brought a lawsuit in France seeking to void the settlement. She argued, among other things, that she had been pressured into the settlement, that the settlement ran afoul of French law regarding Nazi-era art claims, and that she should be given sole permanent ownership of the work with no obligation to continue to rotate it between Europe and the U.S.
In response, the University went back to court in Oklahoma, seeking to compel Meyer to comply with the settlement and to cease her action in France. That motion was granted in November 2020, and in early 2021, Meyer was declared in contempt of court for failing to abandon her legal efforts in the French court system. Last month, a French court declined to overturn the 2016 settlement, notwithstanding the fact that French law is generally favorable to claimants of art seized during the Nazi era.
This spring, following her defeat in France and facing the possibility of thousands of dollars in contempt sanctions, Meyer has now ended her battle; the parties have informed the Oklahoma court that they have reached a new settlement in which Meyer has renounced her claim to the painting. The University, for its part, has withdrawn its motion seeking to have Meyer pay its attorneys’ fees, and has indicated it intends to try to continue to partner with French institutions to show the work there. It has also said it does not intend to keep the work long-term.
From the outset, this case represented a tangle of complex legal issues, ranging from where the case should be heard, to what the impact of the 1950s Swiss court decision should be. And at its inception, the 2016 settlement represented an attempt at a creative solution to that complex problem; rather than spending years litigating technicalities, the settlement sought to address the parties’ intangible priorities, such as the University’s concern for its reputation and that of its donors, as well as the parties’ mutual desire that the painting be available to public audiences. And the case seemed like a good candidate for voluntary restitution in at least one respect; while there were undoubtedly technical legal issues in play, no one disputed that the artwork had indeed been looted by the Nazis. (This stands in contrast to some other recent Nazi-era art litigation in which there was at least some historical uncertainty about what had happened to the art in question during the years leading up to and during the World War II—see examples here and here.)
But the terms of the 2016 settlement apparently envisioned an arrangement that, in practice, was difficult to implement given the logistical complexities (from insurance and transport to exhibition and conservation) of regularly requiring a fragile painting to be shipped back and forth across continents and oceans. (As another commentator has pointed out, such custody-sharing arrangements are possible in the museum community, but they have generally been undertaken as part of a cooperative project, not in an attempt to settle a dispute.) And as the settlement fell apart, matters became further clouded as the parties turned to the courts of two different countries and appealed to judges under two different substantive legal regimes. It's also worth noting that the substantive law governing disputes like this continues to evolve over time; for example, Meyer’s counsel has pointed out that she agreed to the settlement just before Congress passed the HEAR Act (see more on that here), which might have impacted her case.
We have written often (see here, here, and here for examples) about a trend in the art world in favor of voluntary, negotiated restitution of possibly-looted artworks. And we truly hope that the Meyer-Oklahoma dispute and failed settlement does not put a damper on that trend or deter other parties from considering a variety of possible restitution agreements. Voluntary restitution has many advantages (whether viewed from a financial, logistical, moral, or public-relations perspective) and can serve important public and private interest—and should continue to play an important role in resolving these difficult cases, where legal complexities can eclipse the basic facts about the injustices and atrocities of the Nazi era. Rather, the case of La Bergère should hopefully serve as a reminder that settlements—particularly settlements involving international considerations—simply require careful consideration of not just legal issues but practical logistics, economic realities, and the complexities of the international art ecosystem.
Art Law Blog