The extraordinary gathering of 160 prints, paintings and drawings that will be offered on March 5 at Swann come from the family of Ismar Littmann (1878-1934), a lawyer in the city of Breslau (Wroclau in Poland).
Littmann began acquiring art with remarkable intensity from the late 1910s. Within a decade he owned more than 6000 works of art, comprising around 300 oil paintings, 50 major watercolours and more than 5500 drawings and prints (including multiple impressions the same images). Though he lent pieces to significant exhibitions in Breslau and was a co-founder of the short-lived Breslau Jewish Museum in 1929, his vision for a public collection went unfulfilled. The Nazis’ rise to power in Breslau (a once liberal European centre that in 1933 gave 43% of the vote to Hitler) and his ensuing personal misfortune led him to commit suicide in 1934.
Littmann’s taste was for the avant-garde artists working and training at the Breslau Academy of Fine and Applied Arts. He bought many works directly from Otto Mueller (1874-1930) and Heinrich Tischler (1892-1938), both instructors at the academy.
Upon Littmann’s death, much was dispersed without record or respect. Littmann’s widow, Käthe Littmann, consigned 156 pieces to auction in Berlin to raise funds to emigrate. However, just days before the sale, the Gestapo seized 64 of the artworks, keeping 11 for the Berlin National Gallery before photographing and then burning the rest.
The Littman heirs have recently recovered some works via the Holocaust Claims Processing Office (HCPO). Mueller’s Boy in Front of Two Standing and One Seated Girl, one of four Littman works included in the Entartete Kunst (or Degenerate Art) exhibition at Munich in 1937, was finally returned to the Littmann family in 1999. In 2001, Portrait of Charlotte Corinth, by Lovis Corinth (1858-1925) and Seated Nude on Blue Cushion by Karl Hofer (1878-1955), were also recovered.
The 160 works that come for sale in New York next week have a different history. They are from the portion of the collection that Littmann’s eldest son Hans was able to bring to the US in 1934 and works sent later by Littmann’s widow. They have since remained with the Littmann family.
Highlights on offer include Lagernde Zigeunerfamilie mit Ziege, a colour lithograph by Otto Mueller from 1926-27, estimated at $30,000 to $50,000 and the artist’s Nackte in Landschaft, a 1920s watercolour with ink and pencil, estimated at $20,000-30,000.
Reisebilder: Italien–Sudsee, a portfolio with complete text and 50 lithographs by Max Pechstein dating from 1919 is expected to fetch $25,000-35,000 while an oil by Nicholas Ghika Interview avec chevalet d’artiste has an estimate of $50,000-80,000.