Jewels belonging to Austrian billionaire Heidi Horten – whose husband made his fortune under the Nazi regime – are to be auctioned on Wednesday, despite criticism from several Jewish groups. Christie’s auction house plans to sell 700 pieces before the end of the year. The entire collection is estimated to be worth $150 million (€136.64 million). About 152 gems have been on the website for sale online since last week, and 96 pieces are being auctioned in person in Geneva on Wednesday, followed by another 154 on Friday.
The remaining 300 gems are expected to be sold online in November 2023.
The collection includes rare pieces from 20th century designers including Bulgari, Harry Winston, Cartier and Van Cleef & Arpels. Their owner, Heidi Horten, died last year at the age of 81 with a fortune estimated by Forbes at about $2.9 billion.
The jewelry sale is likely to surpass previous records set by Christie’s — from actress Elizabeth Taylor’s collection in 2011 and the “Maharajas and Mughal Magnificence” collection in 2019, which both topped $100 million.
A tarnished past
Heidi Horten’s husband, Helmut Horten, made his fortune at least in part by exploiting Jewish businesses in Nazi Germany. In 1936, after Adolf Hitler seized power in Germany, Horten took over a company in the western city of Duisburg after its Jewish owners fled. He later took over many other department stores and properties that had been owned by Jews before the war.
“The Nazi Billionaires of Germany’s Rich Dynasties – David de Jong, author of The Dark History of Germany’s Rich Dynasties, built his fortune during the Third Reich by acquiring companies from Jewish business owners under duress at fire sale prices.” The New York Times.
Separately, his wife hired a historian to trace the source of his fortune through the Helmut Horten Foundation and found that Horten had been a member of the Nazi Party before being expelled for reasons not found.
Calls to stop auctions
Several Jewish groups have called for the auction to be halted.
“This is a moral issue. This auction is doubly indecent,” Jonathan Arfi, president of France’s Council of Representatives of Jewish Institutions (CRIF), said in a statement on Tuesday. “Funds have not only been used to acquire these jewels in part from the Aryanization of Jewish property by Nazi Germany, but in addition, the sale is to fund a foundation whose purpose is to ensure the genealogy of the former family name. Nazi!”
Aryanization refers to the Nazi practice of expropriating Jewish-owned businesses and transferring them to non-Jews to destroy their economic status.
The Simon Wiesenthal Center, an international Jewish human rights organization, said in a statement that the auction house “must suspend this sale until a full investigation into the connection to the Nazi-era takeover is completed.”
Echoing their statements, the American Jewish Committee criticized Christie’s decision to give an unspecified amount of the sale to Holocaust research and education organizations.
“Rather, the auction should be halted until a serious effort is made to determine what part of this property came from Nazi victims,” it said.
Meanwhile, Christie defended her position.
“The foundation and Christie’s know that all proceeds go to charity, the charities are child protection and welfare, medical research and access to art,” Rahul Kadakia, Christie’s international head of jewelry, told the AFP news agency.
“Christie’s is making a significant donation to Holocaust research and education separately,” he said. “We believe that in the end, the proceeds from the sale are going to do good and that’s why we decided to take on this project.”