Christie’s Cancels Auction Tied to Nazi-Era Wealth

In the 1930s, Helmut Horten purchased businesses that Jewish owners sold “under duress”

Briolette of India
The Briolette of India necklace sold for 6.3 million Swiss francs (a little over $7 million) in May. Christie's

At a Christie’s auction in May, buyers paid over $200 million for the diamonds, emeralds and sapphires belonging to Austrian heiress Heidi Horten. It was one of the largest jewelry sales in history.

Since then, however, the Horten family’s Nazi-era connections have raised controversy—and now, a second sale from the collection has been canceled, according to the New York Times’ Zachary Small.

“The sale of the Heidi Horten jewelry collection has provoked intense scrutiny, and the reaction to it has deeply affected us and many others, and we will continue to reflect on it,” says Anthea Peers, president of Christie’s Europe, Middle East and Africa, in a statement.

Heidi with necklace
Heidi Horten, who died in 2022, wearing the 90.38-carat "Briolette of India" diamond necklace sold by Christie's in May Christie's

In the 1930s, Horten’s husband, Helmut Horten, a former member of the Nazi party, amassed his fortune by purchasing businesses that Jewish owners sold “under duress,” as the Times reported in April. In one case, for example, Horten bought the Alsberg department store in Duisburg, Germany, paying only an estimated 65 percent of the company’s worth. Later, he published an advertisement for the business in a Nazi newspaper, writing that it had “passed into Aryan ownership.”

The Nazis targeted Jewish business owners early in their reign. According to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, a 1933 boycott of Jewish businesses in Germany marked the “first nationwide, planned action against Jews.” The Alsberg department store also faced such boycotts, as well as other harassment, per Jamey Keaten of the Associated Press (AP). Its Jewish owners, the Strauss and Lauter families, fled to the United States as the Nazis rose to power, allowing Horten to purchase the store.

Before her death in 2022, Heidi Horten commissioned Peter Hoeres, a historian at the University of Würzburg, to write a report on her husband’s fortune (Helmut Horten died in 1987). Hoeres tells the AP that Horten “tried to help” some Jews in Germany and “mocked” Nazi leadership, according to testimonies. At the same time, he certainly didn’t participate in anti-Nazi resistance efforts. Horten was “not a saint and not a devil,” but he was a man who “benefited from the circumstances of the tyranny of the Nazis,” adds Hoeres.

Ahead of the May sale, Peers told the Times that Christie’s was “aware there is a painful history,” which it weighed “against various factors.” The auction house promised to donate a portion of its commission to Holocaust research and education groups. But several Jewish groups—including Yad Vashem, Israel’s official organization dedicated to memorializing the Holocaust—rejected donations from the auction house, per the Jerusalem Post’s Zvika Klein.

Bulgari Necklace
This Bulgari diamond, sapphire and emerald necklace from Horton's estate sold for 1,436,500 Swiss francs (roughly $1.6 million) in May.  Christie's

Last week, Christie’s announced that the November sale was officially off. Jewish groups lauded the decision.

“We are pleased to hear that the global outrage surrounding Christie’s sale of the Horten Foundation’s ill-gotten assets—derived from the theft of Jewish property during World War II—has affected the auction house and caused them to cancel their planned sale of additional Horten jewelry this fall,” says Holocaust survivor David Schaecter, president of Holocaust Survivor Foundation USA, in a statement, per the Jewish Telegraphic Agency’s Asaf Elia-Shalev.

He adds, “We are glad that they recognized the great pain additional sales of Horten art and jewelry would cause Holocaust survivors.”

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