The American Alliance of Museums (AAM) has been criticised by the World Jewish Restitution Organization (WJRO) 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, in the United States.
Both the WJRO and Republican state representative Mike Reynolds have sent letters to AAM president Ford W. Bell questioning his unwillingness to investigate the Fred Jones Jr. Museum’s accreditation status.
They believe that the museum has violated the AAM’s ethical bylaws by failing to restitute Pissarro’s 1886 painting ‘La bergère rentrant des moutons’. The painting was given to the museum as part of the Weitzenhoffer Collection in 2000. The Republican state representative Reynolds had previously called upon the organisation to review the museum’s accreditation status.
The institution has been sued by France’s Léone Meyer in an attempt to return the painting, which was looted from her family by the Nazi regime. However, some have argued that a technicality regarding whether or not an Oklahoma defendant can be sued in New York courts; and a Swiss ruling from 1953, may allow the museum to retain the work.
The AAM’s president Bell has said that his organisation does not review the accreditation status of its member institutions during pending legal action. “The accreditation commission is not a legal body,” Bell told the AP news agency.
Yet others have considered the move as a shirking of the AAM’s responsibility to promote ethical management of its member institutions. “A professional accreditation organisation 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, Continuing, 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,” State Representative Reynolds said in a statement to the press.
Gideon Taylor, the WJRO’s Chair of Operations, the individual who penned the letter to the AAM, wrote of their failure as “totally contrary to a commitment to resolve claims regarding art confiscated during the Nazi era.” He added that a legal action does not excuse the AAM from applying its code of ethics, which, in fact, suggests member institutions should avoid legal action in relation to restitution claims entirely.
In conjunction with the WJRO’s statement, the 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.”
State Representative Reynolds has now opened a new line of enquiry by which the AAM could seek to remove the Fred Jones Jr. Museum from its association entirely.
The politician also calls into question the “circumstances around the acceptance of the Weitzenhoffer’s bequest to the University of Oklahoma” suggesting that there are other works in the museum’s collection that were looted by the Nazis.