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French heiress ends fight with University of Oklahoma over Nazi-looted art

The announcement seemingly puts an end to a yearslong transatlantic legal battle over a Pissarro painting that has brought renewed attention to the fate of Nazi-looted art.
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A French heiress has given up her legal fight with an American university to retrieve a painting that was stolen from her adoptive parents by the Nazis during World War II.

Léone-Noëlle Meyer, 81, said on Tuesday that she had been left with “no other choice” but to drop her effort to recover the painting by Danish-French artist Camille Pissarro, after being threatened with heavy fines if she continued her struggle with the University of Oklahoma.

The announcement seemingly puts an end to a yearslong transatlantic legal battle over the work — Pissarro’s "La Bergère Rentrant des Moutons" (Shepherdess Bringing in Sheep) — that has brought renewed attention to the fate of Nazi-looted art.

“This work of art, which belonged to my adoptive parents, Yvonne and Raoul Meyer, was stolen from them by the Nazis during the occupation of France in 1941,” Meyer, a Holocaust survivor, said in a statement.

Meyer lost her mother, grandmother and older brother at Auschwitz when she was a child. She was adopted by Raoul and Yvonne Meyer at the age of 7 from a Paris orphanage.

Her adoptive parents had fled Paris during the Nazi occupation and were forced to hide the artworks they had acquired — including the Pissarro, as well as a Picasso and Renoir — in a bank vault.

The collection was seized by the Nazis, however, with the Pissarro ending up with an art dealer in Switzerland.

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Raoul Meyer fought unsuccessfully in Swiss court after the war to win back the painting. Now, decades later, his adopted daughter has lost the same fight.

Meyer said she was “left with no other choice but to take heed of the inescapable conclusion that it will be impossible to persuade the different parties to whose attention I have brought this matter.”

“I was heard, but not listened to,” she added.

The admission of defeat comes after a Paris court ruled last month that a contract Meyer had signed five years ago to share the Pissarro with the University of Oklahoma superceded a 1945 French law requiring the restitution of Nazi-looted works to their rightful owners.

It also came a day before a court was due to rule on the case again on Wednesday.

As part of the deal the 1886 painting, which is worth an estimated nearly $2 million, is on display in Paris’ Musée d’Orsay, but is set to return to Oklahoma this summer.

While Meyer has acknowledged that she did sign the agreement, which would see the painting rotate between the two countries every three years, she previously said that she did so under duress. “I was called at 2 a.m. and my American lawyer put me under strong pressure to accept this deal. I didn’t have the choice,” she told the French outlet Le Monde this year.

Meyer had been fighting to keep the painting in France.

But she faced legal threats from the University of Oklahoma if she did not end her bid, with a federal judge ruling last November that she was in violation of the deal she had herself signed.

The university has argued that the painting was donated to its Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art after being purchased in good faith from a New York art gallery.

With Meyer having renounced her rights, the university confirmed in a joint statement that it would uphold its commitment to rotate the work between the U.S. and France. It said it would continue to display the piece with a provenance plaque sharing the story of Meyer’s family.

The university said it was also committed to eventually identifying and transferring ownership of the piece to a French public institution or to the U.S. Art in Embassies program.

The saga has been one of many in recent years around the fate of artwork stolen by the Nazis.

Christopher Marinello, a lawyer and CEO of Art Recovery International — a firm specializing in securing the return of looted art — said he sees cases like Meyer’s on a regular basis.

“It’s unfortunately extremely difficult to obtain restitution of Nazi-looted works of art,” he told NBC News.

Much of the difficulty, Marinello said, lies in countries prioritizing the “rights of the citizen” over those of “the victims of Nazi looting.”

Even if victims have clear evidence that artworks were stolen from their families, he said it can be incredibly difficult to force new owners “who may not have known that it was looted” to return the pieces.

In Meyer’s case, Marinello said that while her situation was “sad and unfortunate,” since she had signed an agreement to share the Pissarro, she would have to “abide by its terms.”

Marinello added that he believes laws need to be strengthened to ensure that victims of Nazi-looting can see some small form of justice with the return of their family heirlooms.

“They faced incredible horrors during the Holocaust,” he said. “Why should it be so difficult for them to recover what is theirs?”