By Zachary Small July 4, 2023
Facing criticism for its sale of jewelry from an estate partly built on profits made from the purchase of Jewish businesses during the Holocaust, Christie’s promised in spring to donate a portion of its proceeds to further Holocaust research and education. But the auction house has struggled to find organizations willing to accept money from the sale, which went forward despite the objections of Jewish groups.
The record-breaking sale of jewelry from the estate of Heidi Horten generated $202 million. Horten was an Austrian heiress whose husband, Helmut, built a retail empire in Germany partly by taking advantage of Nazi policies that forced Jewish businessmen to sell their companies.
Yad Vashem, the organization that operates Israel’s official memorial to Holocaust victims, has announced that it declined a donation from Christie’s because of the source of the money. The Jerusalem Post reported that several other Jewish organizations in Israel have also rejected Christie’s donations from the Horten sale.
Deidrea Miller, a spokeswoman at Christie’s, said that the company was still looking to donate money to organizations that promoted an understanding of the Holocaust.
“Christie’s is actively working with various organizations on donation agreements to support Holocaust education and research, including issues of Aryanization and spoliation,” Miller said in a statement, “and we leave it to those organizations to communicate about the donations as they see fit.”
Now, a major Israeli museum has canceled a joint conference with Christie’s because of the auction house’s role in the jewelry sale.
The Tel Aviv Museum of Art announced over the weekend that it had decided against participating with Christie’s in an event designed to look at restitution policies for objects lost by Jews during the Holocaust. The decision was made in coordination with city officials, a museum spokeswoman said, because the museum is government funded.
“Since we understand that this issue has raised sensitivity among Holocaust survivors organizations, we are not holding the conference anymore,” said the museum’s director, Tania Coen-Uzzielli, in an email interview.
“We respect the Tel Aviv Museum of Art’s decision to cancel the long-planned program on restitution, scheduled to take place at the museum in December,” Miller, the Christie’s spokeswoman, said in a statement.
Criticism began to build before the sale, which featured jewelry bought with Helmut Horten’s fortune. Horten started his retail empire in the 1930s under the Nazi policy of Aryanization, when Jews were pressured or forced to sell their businesses at steep discounts. During the regime, he had department stores across Europe, from Amsterdam to East Prussia.
Heidi Horten met her husband long after World War II when he had reinvented himself as a supermarket king during the German economic miracle of the postwar years. She was 19 and he was more than three decades older. They married in 1966, a union that lasted until Helmut’s death in 1987, after which Heidi inherited nearly a billion dollars.
Some organizations rebuked Christie’s for the sale, and asked collectors to take their business elsewhere.
“Jewish clients and institutions, and anyone with a heart and integrity, should think twice before doing business with Christie’s, which chose profit over principle when it sponsored the auction of the Heidi Horten jewelry collection,” said David Schaecter, president of Holocaust Survivors’ Foundation USA and a survivor himself.
Before the Tel Aviv Museum canceled its conference with the auction house, Schaecter also sent a letter to museum trustees saying that it would be “providing a platform within the Jewish State for Holocaust profiteers to justify their plunder.”
Christie’s executives said they had weighed the reputational risks before agreeing to sell the Horten collection.
“We are aware there is a painful history,” Anthea Peers, president of Christie’s Europe, Middle East and Africa, told The New York Times in April. “We weighed that up against various factors,” she said, adding that the Heidi Horten Foundation would be “a key driver of philanthropic causes,” which include a museum named after the heiress in Vienna.
Accusations from scholars and the daughter of a businessman who said he was targeted by Helmut Horten during the Nazi era have circled the family for years. In 2020, Heidi Horten commissioned a report on her husband by the historian Peter Hoeres. He found that Helmut Horten had undoubtedly profited from Jewish persecution, but also said that Horten was motivated by an opportunistic business sense rather than the antisemitism of the Nazis, with whom he ultimately had a falling out.
The criticism failed to slow the bidding in May, when several objects from the jewelry collection sold for more than $1 million, including a Bulgari ring with a large pink diamond that went for nearly double its high estimate, at $10 million with buyer’s fees. Almost 98 percent of the auction’s 400 jewels sold. Half the bidders were from Europe and the Middle East, according to the auction house. More than a quarter lived in the United States.
A second sale of jewelry from the Horten collection containing roughly 300 lots is scheduled for November, though some Jewish organizations, like the Holocaust Survivors’ Foundation USA, are trying to convince Christie’s to cancel it.
The company has not said what amount of fees from the sales it is planning to donate.
Zachary Small is a reporter who covers the dynamics of power and privilege in the art world. They have written for The Times since 2019.