Oklahoma lawmakers have unanimously passed a resolution instructing the Fred Jones Jr Museum of Art at the University of Oklahoma to step up provenance research to determine whether any works in its collection were looted by the Nazis during the Second World War. The news comes as a two-year legal battle between the museum and the heir of a Jewish collector kicks into high gear.
All 101 members of the Oklahoma House of Representatives approved the resolution on 22 May. The document, which is not legally binding, encourages the museum to conduct thorough provenance research on every work it seeks to acquire in the future and resolve any existing ownership disputes “in an equitable, appropriate and mutually agreeable manner, including restitution”. Local governments rarely insert themselves in to such debates, but the state representative Paul Wesselhöft, who drafted the resolution, says in a statement that he “chose to place the Oklahoma House of Representatives on the right side of history”.
The university has been criticised in the past for not performing due diligence on 33 works of Impressionist art that Clara and Aaron Weitzenhoffer left to the Fred Jones Jr Museum in 2000. One of the works, Camille Pissarro’s Shepherdess Bringing in Sheep (1886), is embroiled in a legal battle. In 2013, the daughter of Raoul Meyer, a French department store owner, sued the museum to retain ownership of the painting. On 6 April, a New York court transferred the case to Oklahoma, where proceedings are due to resume in the coming months.
The Pissarro painting was among several that the Meyer family listed in a registry of assets looted in France during the Second World War. It passed through the Swiss dealer Christoph Bernoulli in 1953 before coming to New York, where the Weitzenhoffers purchased it in 1956. In 2010, a curator from the Indianapolis Museum of Art contacted the Fred Jones Jr Museum with concerns that the painting had been stolen, according to the Oklahoma Gazette.
A spokeswoman for the university says the institution "is already taking the action recommended by the resolution," including provenance research on donated art. "We are also already negotiating in good faith with the other party to attempt to find a solution that is fair to both parties and to the public," she says. "Our donor purchased the painting in good faith and generously gave it to the museum where it can be enjoyed free of charge by visitors, especially by the people of Oklahoma. We hope for a mutually agreeable solution that will be fair to the Meyers, to our Oklahoma donors, and to the people of Oklahoma."