A French woman is being threatened with multi-million-dollar fines by a US court if she continues a legal battle to retrieve a Pissarro painting the Nazis stole from her adoptive father.
The legal tussle over La Bergère Rentrant des Moutons (Shepherdess Bringing in Sheep), completed by Camille Pissarro in 1886 and worth an estimated €1.5m (£1.3m), is between Léone-Noëlle Meyer, 81, a former president of the Galeries Lafayette department store, and Oklahoma University’s Fred Jones Jr Museum of Art, which was gifted the painting by a local family.
It is currently hanging in Paris’s Musée d’Orsay but is due to return to Oklahoma later this year under an agreement to share the work, which Meyer is contesting.
The plaintiffs are demanding Meyer be fined $3.5m in the US and face penalties of up to $100,000 a day for contempt of court if she does not halt proceedings in France in which she is seeking full ownership of the impressionist work.
Meyer, a retired paediatrician, says she is fighting a “quest” on behalf of the family she lost in the Holocaust and her late adoptive parents. “Mrs Meyer is not doing this for money. She is doing this in memory of her father who owned the painting. She does not want to hang it in her living room, she wants to give it to the Musée d’Orsay,” Ron Soffer, her lawyer, told the Guardian.
The case hinges on whether an agreement Meyer signed in 2016 for the Oklahoma museum to share the painting with the Musée d’Orsay on a three-year rotation overrides a 1945 French law requiring the restitution of works looted by the Nazis to their rightful owners.
Meyer, listed as the ninth-richest woman in France worth an estimated €600m, claims she signed it under duress. “I was called at 2am and my American lawyer put me under strong pressure to accept this deal. I didn’t have the choice,” she told Le Monde.
“Faced with the prospect of losing the painting forever, Madame Meyer had no other choice but to sign an agreement granting Oklahoma half the ownership rights over a painting that, according to French law, Oklahoma had no rights to,” Soffer added.
La Bergère was acquired by Meyer’s adoptive father, Raoul, in the 1930s. During the Nazi occupation, he and his wife, Yvonne, fled Paris, placing their art collection, which also included a Picasso, a Renoir and a Bonnard, in a bank vault where it was discovered by the Germans.
Raoul Meyer went to court in Basel in 1953 in an unsuccessful attempt retrieve the work from a Swiss dealer, and it then arrived in the US.
Soffer argues the 2016 agreement cannot take precedence over a 1945 French law that establishing that “no possessor can prevail against the legitimate owner of a work stolen by the Nazis”. “Under this law, the American museum is presumed to have been a possessor in bad faith,” he added.
Meyer lost her mother, grandmother and older brother at Auschwitz. She was adopted as a seven-year-old by the Meyers from a Paris orphanage.
In an open letter to the “People of Oklahoma” in 2014, she wrote: “Please understand that my quest carries with it a tremendous emotional burden. My entire biological family was murdered at Auschwitz between 1942 (the Vel d’Hiv pogrom) and 1944: first my mother in 1942, then the rest of my family in 1944, while I, somehow, miraculously, survived this slaughter.
“I view this quest as a two-pronged duty to remember: a duty to my biological family and a duty to my adoptive family. Do not think for a moment that any of this is easy. It forces me to question my whole existence.”
Soffer says Meyer has attempted to resolve the dispute. “She offered to buy the painting back. They refused. The fact is the painting should have been restituted to Madame Meyer under French law. It belonged to her father and as his heir it should be restituted to her,” he said.
Olivier de Baecque, a lawyer for the Oklahoma museum, disagrees. “A transaction has been signed, approved by French and American judges and Madame Meyer must respect it,” he told Le Monde. “In the event of difficulties, it is stipulated that it must be returned to an American judge.”
The French court hearing has been postponed until 2 March, with the judges ordering both parties to take part in personal mediation.
In 2018, a Paris court ordered that a Pissarro painting stolen from a French Jewish family during the German occupation must be returned. The painting’s American owners, Bruce and Robbi Toll, said they had bought the work, La Cueillette des Pois (Pea Picking), in good faith in 1995 and had no idea it had been seized from Simon Bauer, a Jewish collector, in 1943.