Auction of £120m of jewels to go ahead despite Jewish groups’ concerns

The Guardian 9 May 2023
By Rupert Neate

Critics say collection derives from fortune made by buying businesses from Jews who were forced to sell in Nazi Germany

An employee of Christie's holding the Briolette of India, a 90.38-carat colourless diamond that is expected to fetch at least $10m at the auction

Christie’s, the famed British auction house, has said it will go ahead with an auction of £120m of jewels on Wednesday despite calls from Jewish groups to stop the sale over concerns the collection belonged to a German billionaire who made a fortune buying businesses from Jews who were forced to sell in Nazi Germany.

The Representative Council of Jewish Institutions in France (Crif), the American Jewish Committee and the Simon Wiesenthal Center, a Los Angeles-based Jewish human rights group, have demanded that Christie’s halt the auction of the jewellery collection of the Austrian billionaire Heidi Horten.

She inherited billions from her department store magnate husband Helmut Horten, who is described by Jewish advocacy groups as an “unscrupulous businessman” who took advantage of a Nazi policy of seizing property from Jews or forcing them to sell.

“This sale is indecent in two ways,” the Crif president, Yonathan Arfi, said. “Not only did the funds that allowed the purchase of this jewellery come in part from the Ayranisation of Jewish property conducted by Nazi Germany, this sale is also to finance a foundation with the mission to safeguard the name of a former Nazi for posterity.”

Anthea Peers, the president of Christie’s in Europe, said the auction house would proceed with the auction despite growing concerns about the source of the Hortens’ fortune.

“Christie’s decision to take on the sale of jewellery from the estate of Heidi Horten was made after careful consideration and with the explicit understanding that 100% of the proceeds her estate receives will be directed to a foundation which supports philanthropic causes,” Peers said.

“As we agreed to take on this auction, we chose to do so with knowledge of the well-documented business practices of Mrs Horten’s late first husband during the Nazi era when he bought Jewish businesses that were sold under duress.

“We cannot erase history, but we are hopeful and believe that through this auction, Christie’s can ensure that the funds raised go to good and important causes.”

The American Jewish Committee said Christie’s should put the sale “on hold” until a “serious effort is made to determine what portion of this wealth came from Nazi victims”.

Rabbi Abraham Cooper, the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s associate dean and director of global social action, said: “Christie’s must suspend this sale until full research of link[s] to Nazi-era acquisitions are completed. Don’t reward those whose families may have gained riches from desperate Jews targeted and threatened by the Nazis.”

The SWC alleged that Helmut Horton took over Alsberg textile company in the western city of Duisburg after its Jewish owners fled Germany in 1936. “After that ‘sale’ at below-market value, Horton was said to have taken out an ad in a Nazi party newspaper, announcing the store was now under ‘Aryan ownership’. He later took over several other shops which had belonged to Jewish owners before the war.”

Heidi Horten – who inherited an estimated £2.7bn when her husband died in 1987 – died in June 2022 with no heirs.

Her jewellery collection includes a white gold and diamond Cartier ring set with the Sunrise Ruby, the world’s most valuable non-diamond gemstone, which Horten bought for $30.4m (£24.5m) at auction eight years ago. As well as the Briolette of India, a 90.38-carat colourless diamond cut by the jeweller Harry Winston and a three-strand natural pearl necklace with an 11-carat pink diamond clasp estimated to sell for $7m to $10m.

In total, the auction, which begins in person at the five-star Four Seasons Hotel des Bergues in Geneva on Wednesday, is expected to fetch $150-$200m (£120-£160m) becoming the world’s most valuable jewellery auction ever, eclipsing the $116m Elizabeth Taylor’s collection sold for in 2011 and the $109m sale in 2019 of a collection owned by Qatar’s ruling Al Thani family.

The proceeds from the sale will go to the Heidi Horten Foundation, which she set up in 2020 to fund a public art museum in Vienna to hold her vast art collection and to fund medical research.

Christie’s confirmed it “updated the wording” regarding the source of Horten’s fortune on 25 April, days after the Guardian reported the sale, to acknowledge that Jewish businesses he bought were “sold under duress”.

It also said it would donate a portion of the proceeds from the sale to Holocaust research.
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