Grossman LLP | University of Oklahoma Reaches Settlement With Claimant Over Nazi-Confiscated Pissarro Painting
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  • University of Oklahoma Reaches Settlement With Claimant Over Nazi-Confiscated Pissarro Painting
    After a long legal battle in multiple federal courts, the University of Oklahoma has reached a settlement regarding a claimant’s attempts to recover a Nazi-looted artwork by celebrated Expressionist painter Camille Pissarro.

    We have previously written about this case, which involves a claim by 75-year-old Leone Meyer, who says that the painting, La Bergère Rentrent des Moutons (“Shepherdess Bringing in Sheep”), was stolen from her family by the Nazi regime during World War II.  Specifically, she has alleged that the work was taken from a French bank where it had been stored for safekeeping, sent to the Jeu de Paume (a processing station for Nazi-confiscated art), and then disappeared.  After the war ended, Meyer’s father learned the work had ended up in the possession of a Swiss art dealer named Bernoulli, and sued to recover it; but a Swiss court found that Bernoulli had bought the work in good faith and therefore had good title under Swiss law.

    After the unsuccessful Swiss lawsuit, Meyer’s family again lost track of the work, which eventually made its way to America and became part of the significant art collection of prominent Oklahomans Aaron and Clara Weitzenhoffer.  Upon Clara’s death in 2000, the couple’s estate bequeathed dozens of important artworks 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, naming as defendants the University; its president; its foundation; two museum associations (arguing that they failed to appropriately enforce their membership rules against the University’s art museum); and several defendants related to the art dealers who originally sold the work to the Weitzenhoffers.

    In 2014, however, Meyer’s complaint was dismissed for lack of personal jurisdiction.  See Meyer v. Bd. of Regents of Univ. of Oklahoma, No. 13-cv-3128(CM), 2014 WL 2039654 (S.D.N.Y. May 14, 2014).  Applying principles of general jurisdiction, the district court held that the University’s minimal connections with New York were insufficient to subject it to general jurisdiction in New York.  And in April 2015, the district court judge ordered the case transferred to Oklahoma.

    As the parties resumed litigation in Oklahoma, the University found itself facing increased pressure from the public and from state legislators calling for the University to reach a restitution arrangement with Meyer.  This past fall, the University defendants pressed on in court; they filed a motion to dismiss arguing, among other things, that the 1953 Swiss court decision should be recognized as the final word on the matter, and that in any case, Meyer’s claims were barred by the statute of limitations or laches.  But in December 2015, the parties hit the “pause” button on the legal battle; Meyer asked for and received an “administrative closure” of the case for 90 days while the parties sought to hammer out details of a potential settlement.

    In late February, the parties announced the settlement recognizing that Meyer has legal title to La Bergère.  The settlement provides, however, that the artwork will be displayed on a rotating basis between France and Oklahoma; the work will be shown at a yet-to-be-determined museum in France starting this summer, for a period of five years, and thereafter will move every three years between France and the University’s on-campus museum in Norman, Oklahoma.  Interestingly, the agreement also obligates Ms. Meyer to, at some point during her lifetime, make an unconditional inter-vivos or testamentary gift of La Bergère to a mutually agreed upon art institution in France, so long as the institution will agree to assume and perform Ms. Meyer’s obligations under the settlement agreement (including the three-year trans-Atlantic rotations).  She cannot otherwise convey the work to a third party without the prior written consent of the University, who shares in any net proceeds of a sale.  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.  (This arrangement stands in contrast to some other recent restitutions, which have left the rightful owner free to sell the work on the open market.)

    The settlement represents a continuing trend in the art world in favor of voluntary, negotiated restitution of possibly looted artworks.  Such arrangements have many advantages, including avoiding expensive litigation (which often involves years of legal wrangling over technical arguments such as immunity, statutes of limitations, laches, and the effect of previous decisions made in other countries decades ago).  Institutions may also prefer a negotiated settlement for moral and publicity reasons, particularly as Holocaust-era property disputes often garner significant attention in the press.  In this respect, it is noteworthy that the Meyer settlement evinces great concern for reputational considerations.  For example, it specifically recognizes that the Weitzenhoffers bought the painting in good faith and the University accepted the Weitzenhoffers’ bequest in good faith.  It also states that neither party may commercially exploit the story of the lawsuits without the other’s permission, and proceeds from such exploitation should be shared equally.

    This story illustrates how voluntary restitution settlements may be able to resolve looted-art disputes in ways that serve important public and private interests.  But such settlements still require careful consideration of complex legal issues.  The Meyer settlement document filed with the court spans dozens of pages, comprehensively addressing topics including the form of quitclaim deed that will be used to formalize Meyer’s title; the wording of a joint press release; what information will be included on signage when the work is displayed; how the work’s provenance will be described; and how the parties will allocate costs of transporting and insuring the work.  Settlements like this one are by no means simple, but they represent a valuable alternative to drawn-out litigation over decades-old injustices.