Criticism from historians and Jewish organizations did little to dim the sale at Christie’s of jewels bought with a fortune built in part atop profits made from the Aryanization of Jewish businesses during the Holocaust.
In bidding online and in person in Geneva, the sale of jewelry from the estate of Heidi Horten, an Austrian philanthropist, has brought in $202 million, making it the most successful jewelry sale in history.
The sales figures for some 400 lots surpassed the $137 million that was spent on Elizabeth Taylor’s collection in 2011. The auction house said 98 percent of the Horten lots sold, and there is another large sale of roughly 300 lots from the collection scheduled for November.
Christie’s has faced substantial criticism about the sale because of Horten’s husband, Helmut Horten, a German businessman and billionaire, who began to amass his fortune by purchasing at a discount the businesses of Jews forced by circumstances or edict to sell their companies during the Holocaust.
“In a time of Holocaust denial and the resurgence of antisemitism around the world, we find it especially appalling that a world-renowned auction house would engage in such a sale,” wrote Yoram Dvash, president of the World Federation of Diamond Bourses, in a recent letter to François Curiel, the auction house’s chairman of Europe and Asia.
Christie’s officials have said they chose to move forward with the sale despite the criticism because the proceeds are going to the Heidi Horten Foundation, which supports medical research and a museum containing her art collection. The auction house also pledged to donate some of its proceeds to Holocaust research and education.
David Schaecter, president of Holocaust Survivors’ Foundation USA, which represents support groups for victims’ families in the United States, called the sale “appalling” and said it had perpetuated “a disgraceful pattern of whitewashing Holocaust profiteers.”
Anthea Peers, president of Christie’s Europe, Middle East, and Africa, responded to Schaecter in an email in which she said, “Christie’s seeks to work to salvage some good from one of the most painful periods in global history, and to preserve the memory of those who were tragically its victims.” She declined to say what organizations would receive funding, saying it was up to those groups to identify themselves.
When Helmut Horten died in 1987, his wife inherited nearly a billion dollars and became one of the wealthiest women in Austria. She died last year, only days after her private museum in Vienna opened.
In 2020, the heiress commissioned a report from a historian, Peter Hoeres, to investigate the nature of her late husband’s wealth. Hoeres has described his report as a mixed view of Horten in which he found that the businessman had undoubtedly profited from the duress of Jews but was motivated by an opportunistic business sense rather than the antisemitism of the Nazis, with whom he ultimately had a falling out.
The debate did little to slow the bidding last week. Half the lots on Wednesday sold for above $1 million, including a Bulgari ring with a large pink diamond that sold for nearly double its high estimate at $10 million with buyer’s fees. After one day, the sale had exceeded the $150 million that Christie’s had estimated it might bring in. Additional bidding on Friday raised another $42 million.
In its marketing for the auction, Christie’s described the 700 jewels as “unparalleled” and “a true embodiment of Mrs. Horten’s timeless elegance, glamour and taste for collecting.” The sale’s promotional materials on the auction house’s website did not initially include any mention of Helmut Horten’s connection to the Nazis, but language referencing his purchase of Jewish businesses was later added and the auction house announced its plan to donate some of its fees.
Two lawyers wrote to Christie’s last week expressing concerns that the sale might have violated the restitution rights of the heirs of Holocaust victims. One of them, Steven Lieberman of Washington, said he represented an heir of a business appropriated by Helmut Horten.
The second lawyer, Nitsana Darshan-Leitner, who leads an Israeli law center called Shurat HaDin, told the auction house that “any potential buyers of these items should be placed on notice of the Hortens’ connection to the coercion and theft of Jewish property during the Holocaust.”
Auction house officials have said none of the 700 jewels for sale had been bought from, or confiscated from, Jews during the Holocaust era. But critics had still expressed concern about the source of some of the fortune that enabled them to be purchased.