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Restitution of Three Artworks from the Littmann Collection and Gifting of Carlo Mense’s „Doppelbildnis (Rabbi S. und Tochter)“ to the Neue Nationalgalerie

15.02.2023
Neue Nationalgalerie

Three artworks from the Neue Nationalgalerie of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin have been restituted to the heirs of the lawyer Ismar Littmann. Littmann died in 1934 after sustaining an injury in an attempted suicide brought on by his persecution by the Nazis. The works in question are Die Ruhende (Woman Resting, 1911) by Max Pechstein, Selbstbildnis (Self-Portrait, 1925) by Wilhelm Schmid, and Doppelbildnis (Rabbi S. und Tochter) (Double Portrait [Rabbi S. and His Daughter], 1925) by Carlo Mense. Thanks to a generous donation by Littmann’s heirs, the painting by Mense will remain in the Neue Nationalgalerie, where it will be accompanied by an object description explaining its history.

The works formed part of a collection comprising more than 4,000 works of art that the State of Prussia acquired from the Dresdner Bank in 1935 and subsequently handed over to the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin. This collection, the individual components of which can be attributed to a multitude of previous owners, has been the subject of a provenance research project conducted by the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin’s Zentralarchiv since 2018: Research into the Provenance of Works of Art from the 1935 Dresdner Bank Collection.

The Art Collector Ismar Littmann

Ismar Littmann (1878–1934), a German lawyer and notary from Breslau, amassed an extensive art collection in the 1920s that included works by contemporary artists of the day such as Lovis Corinth, Max Pechstein, Erich Heckel, and Max Liebermann. He financed his further acquisition of works of art largely through loans, using other artworks as collateral. Until 1933 – and even in a period of global economic crisis – Littmann was able to service the loans and, once they were successfully repaid, would recover the paintings used as collateral to have at his disposal.

His professional, financial, and personal situation deteriorated dramatically with the onset of the first acts of Nazi persecution enacted against Jewish lawyers and notaries. As a result of these measures, Littmann was forced to apply in April 1933 for re-admission to the Rechtsanwaltskammer (bar association). Until his restricted re-admission was granted on 1 June 1933, Littmann was forced to suspend his legal operations. In the period that followed, the law firm was unable to match its previous level of success. At the end of 1933, out of sheer desperation and despair, Ismar Littmann tried to take his own life; he survived the suicide attempt, but died on 23 September 1934 as a result of injuries sustained during it.

About the Littmann Collection

Following his death, Littmann’s family had no means of supporting themselves financially, and ultimately fell into a state of economic hardship. It was against this backdrop that his widow, Käthe Littmann, and his son, Hans Littmann, were forced to sell large portions of Littmann’s art collection at an auction held at the Max Perl auction house in February 1935.

The paintings Doppelbildnis (Rabbi S. und Tochter) by Carlo Mense, Die Ruhende by Max Pechstein, and Selbstbildnis by Wilhelm Schmid – consigned by the Dresdner Bank – were also auctioned in the same sale, but were never sold. It was not until August 1935 that the three works were ultimately sold en bloc as part of a sale of art by the Dresdner Bank to the Prussian state. It has been proved that these three works had belonged to the Littmann Collection from 1930 at the very latest.

Yet, despite several years of exhaustive research, no documents have been found that provide the details of a potential transfer by way of security to the Dresdner Bank. As such, it is impossible to conclusively determine in what way the three paintings in question were still part of the Littmann family's assets at the time the sale took place in August 1935. Nonetheless, the overall circumstances suggest that the sale by the Dresdner Bank caused the family to lose wealth and assets as a direct result of persecution. 

The SPK was able to reach an equitable and just solution together with the heirs of Ismar and Käthe Littmann in accordance with the Washington Principles: it has restituted Doppelbildnis (Rabbi S. und Tochter), Die Ruhende, and Selbstbildnis to Littmann’s heirs, who in turn have donated the painting Doppelbildnis (Rabbi S. und Tochter) to the SPK. Thanks to this generous donation, the artwork will remain in the Neue Nationalgalerie of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin.