Jewelry belonging to Austrian billionaire Heidi Horten — whose husband founded his fortune under the Nazi regime — is being 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). Some 152 jewels have been on the website for online sale since last week, and 96 pieces are being auctioned in person in Geneva on Wednesday, followed by another 154 on Friday.
The remaining 300 jewels are expected to be sold online in November 2023.
The collection includes rare pieces by 20th-century designers, including Bulgari, Harry Winston, Cartier and Van Cleef & Arpels. Their owner, Heidi Horten, died last year at 81 with a Forbes-estimated fortune of nearly $2.9 billion.
The jewelry sale is likely to surpass previous records set by Christie's — from the collection of actress Elizabeth Taylor in 2011 and the "Maharajas and Mughal Magnificence" collection in 2019, both of which exceeded $100 million.
A stained past
Heidi Horten's husband, Helmut Horten, earned his wealth, at least partially, by exploiting Jewish business in Nazi Germany. In 1936, after Adolf Hitler grabbed power in Germany, Horten took over a company in the western city of Duisburg after its Jewish owners fled. He later took over several other department stores and properties owned by Jews before the war.
"He laid the foundations of his wealth during the Third Reich by acquiring companies on the cheap at fire-sale prices from Jewish business owners under duress," author of Nazi Billionaires — The Dark History of Germany's Wealthiest Dynasties, David de Jong, told The New York Times.
Separately, his wife hired a historian through the Helmut Horten Foundation to investigate the source of his fortune and found Horten had been a member of the Nazi party before being expelled for unexplained reasons.
Calls to stop auctions
Several Jewish groups have demanded that the auction be put on hold.
"This is a moral issue. This auction is doubly indecent," Yonathan Arfi, president of the Representative Council of Jewish Institutions in France (CRIF), said in a statement on Tuesday. "Not only are the funds used to acquire these jewels partly from the aryanization of Jewish property carried out by Nazi Germany, but, in addition, this sale is to fund a foundation whose mission is to ensure the posterity of the family name of a former Nazi!"
Aryanization refers to the Nazi practice of seizing businesses owned by Jews and transferring them to non-Jews to destroy their economic standing.
The Simon Wiesenthal Center, an international Jewish human rights organization, said in a statement that the auction house "must suspend this sale until full research of link to Nazi era acquisitions are completed."
Echoing their statements, the American Jewish Committee criticized Christie's decision to give an unspecified amount of the sale toward Holocaust research and education organizations.
"Instead, the auction should be put on hold until a serious effort is made to determine what portion of this wealth came from Nazi victims," it said.
Christie's meanwhile defended its position.
"The foundation and Christie's know that all of the proceeds are going towards charities, the charities are child protection and welfare, medical research and access to the arts," Rahul Kadakia, Christie's international head of jewelry, told the AFP news agency.
"Christie's separately is making a significant donation towards Holocaust research and education," he said. "We believe that in the end, proceeds of the sale is going to do good and this is the reason we decided to take on the project."
mk/sms (AFP, Christie's)