American Association of Museums Goes Easy on Nazi Loot

Will they oust the Fred Jones Jr. Museum?

The American Alliance of Museums (AAM) has come under fire by the World Jewish Restitution Organization (WJRO) and an Oklahoma lawmaker over their lack of action in the ongoing restitution dispute over a Camille Pissarro painting held by the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art at the University of Oklahoma in Norman, Oklahoma.

Both the WJRO and Republican state representative Mike Reynolds sent letters to AAM president Ford W. Bell condemning his unwillingness to investigate the Fred Jones Jr. Museum’s accreditation status. Both believe that the museum has violated the AAM’s ethical bylaws by failing to restitute Pissarro’s 1886 painting La bergère rentrant des moutons (Shepherdess Bringing in Sheep). Reynolds had previously called upon the organization to review the museum’s accreditation status.

France’s Léone Meyer has sued the institution to return the painting, which was stolen from her family by the Nazi regime (see: “Holocaust Survivor Sues for Return of Looted Camille Pissarro Painting“). However, some have argued that a technicality—whether or not an Oklahoma defendant can be sued in New York courts—and a Swiss ruling from 1953 allow the museum to retain the work (see:”Why Ronald Lauder Is Right About Nazi-Looted Art in Museums“).

The painting was given to the museum as part of the Weitzenhoffer Collection in 2000.

The AAM’s Bell told the AP earlier this week that his organization does not review the accreditation status of its member institutions while legal action is pending. “The accreditation commission is not a legal body,” Bell told the news agency.

Camille Pissarro, Shepherdess Bringing in Sheep

Camille Pissarro, La bergère rentrant des moutons (Shepherdess Bringing in Sheep) (1886)

However, others have characterized the move as a shirking of the AAM’s responsibility to promote ethical management of its member institutions. “A professional accreditation organization as prestigious as AAM does not get to choose when it wants to enforce its Code of Ethics. Either it does, or it does not,” State Representative Reynolds said in a statement. Continuing, Representative Reynolds said, “AAM swiftly enforced its Code against the Delaware Museum of Art over one painting, so there is no reason for this Commission not to review the accreditation status of the Fred Jones Museum over a number of potential violations. This is a disgrace over the great State of Oklahoma, and this needs to be fixed,” he adds.

The WJRO’s Chair of Operations, Gideon Taylor, who penned the letter to the AAM, wrote that their failure to review the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art’s accreditation is “totally contrary to a commitment to resolve claims regarding art confiscated during the Nazi era.” He stated that a legal action does not excuse the AAM from applying its ethics code, which, in fact, advocates for member institutions to avoid legal action related to restitution claims entirely.

Per the WJRO’s statement, AAM guidelines stipulate: “When appropriate and reasonably practical, museums should seek methods other than litigation (such as mediation) to resolve claims that an object was unlawfully appropriated during the Nazi era without subsequent restitution. […] The Alliance acknowledges that in order to achieve an equitable and appropriate resolution of claims, museums may elect to waive certain available defenses.”

In his latest letter, State Representative Reynolds opens up new paths by which the AAM could seek to remove the Fred Jones Jr. Museum from its association. He calls into question the resignation or “possibly the firing of Emily Neff” in mid-October, after less than a year in the new position, seeming to suggest a relationship between the departure and the restitution claim. He also casts doubt on the “circumstances around the acceptance of the Weitzenhoffer’s bequest to the University of Oklahoma” and suggests that there are other works in the museum’s collection that were looted by the Nazis.

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