In early May, The Netherlands announced the return of seven archaeological objects to Iraq.
In April, the Associated Press reported: “Italian police say they have recovered a 1st century Roman statue that was stolen from an archaeological site in 2011 and found in a Belgian antiques shop.”
That same month the BBC reported, “A Mayan urn, made between 900 and 1600 AD, is returning to Mexico after spending more than 50 years at (Albion College) in the United States.”
Also in April, the BBC reported: “Germany plans to return to Nigeria by next year some historical artifacts known as Benin Bronzes that were looted during the colonial era.”
Repatriation, understanding, reconciliation, rightful owners: there seems to be a trend here in period human decency and doing the right thing.
But, bucking this trend toward rapprochement, the University of Oklahoma has legally bludgeoned an 81-year-old French woman into dropping her claim to a family-owned Camille Pissarro painting that the Nazis looted from a French bank during World War II.
Last month, BBC Correspondent Lucy Williamson wrote, “No-one disputes this story. But the painting itself, found hanging in an Oklahoma art gallery in 2012, is now the subject of an unusual custody agreement, and a bitter transatlantic dispute over restitution rights in cases of stolen Nazi art.”
With the statute of limitations stacked in favor of recipients of looted artwork (the fence defense, I guess), Léone-Noëlle Meyer, the step-daughter of the couple who owned the painting before the Nazis stole it, said June 1: “After all these years, I have 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,” as reported by the BBC.
The legal filings involved in this case would choke a shark. There was an artwork-sharing agreement – maybe signed under duress. French courts had been asked to rule on the loss of a national heritage item and French law forbidding agreements in perpetuity. A U.S. district court, agreeing with OU’s lawyers, found Mrs. Meyer in contempt and fined her “$2,500 a day, in addition to legal fees – for as long as she continues the case in France,” according to Williamson.
That art-sharing program will now go into effect, with the painting rotating between OU and a French museum every three years.
Williamson noted the U.S. court’s “stinging rebuke” of Mrs. Meyer, saying she “’has largely forfeited whatever sympathy she might otherwise have been entitled to,’ having ‘entered into a rigorously negotiated settlement agreement… then violated that settlement agreement when it no longer suited her purposes.’”
I dunno, Mrs. Meyer still has my sympathy. The painting belonged to her family. It was stolen by Nazis. A collector donated the painting to OU – with a mistaken provenance that no one denies.
In her concession statement, Mrs. Meyer said she had been “heard but not listened to.”
As the painting transits between OU and France, it will be “accompanied by a plaque outlining Mrs. Meyer’s family history.”
I’m guessing the plaque won’t read: “The Nazis stole this, but OU ain’t giving it back.”
(Gary Edmondson is chair of the Stephens County Democratic Party. Longer versions of his columns can be found at scdpok.us or facebook.com/SCDPOK/.)