What could be the most valuable jewelry auction in history is also shaping up as one of the most controversial.
The World Federation of Diamond Bourses (WFDB) has asked Christie’s to halt a proposed sale of jewels from the estate of Heidi Horten (pictured), whose husband Helmut built his business in part by buying companies from Jews who were forced to sell at cut-rate prices in Nazi Germany.
The World of Heidi Horten auction is scheduled for May 3–15, in Geneva, Switzerland, and online. Horten’s jewelry collection, which includes items from noted names like Bulgari and Van Cleef & Arpels, has been valued at over $150 million, which could make it the most lucrative jewelry auction in history, topping Christie’s 2011 sale of Elizabeth Taylor’s gems.
Proceeds will go to the Heidi Horten Foundation, which funds medical research and runs a museum in Vienna that bears her name.
Horten (pictured), who died last year, was 19 when she married 51-year-old department store magnate Helmut in 1966, according to The New York Times. After he died in 1987, she inherited an estate worth nearly $1 billion.
Yet her husband’s business practices during the Nazi era have come under scrutiny, particularly his purchasing of businesses by Jewish owners forced to sell them.
“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,” David de Jong, author of Nazi Billionaires: The Dark History of Germany’s Wealthiest Dynasties, told the Times.
The WFDB statement, signed by its president Yoram Dvash, said that Helmut Horten’s fortune was “clearly associated with Nazi plunder of Jewish businesses. In a time of Holocaust denial and the resurgence of anti-Semitism around the world, we find it especially appalling that a world-renowned auction house would engage in such a sale.”
In a statement, the American Jewish Committee argued the auction “should be put on hold until a serious effort is made to determine what portion of [Heidi Horten’s] wealth came from Nazi victims. Once determined, it should instead be directed to support the needy and infirm Holocaust survivors who are still among us and the educational programs that tell their stories.”
Some charged that Christie’s added information on Helmut’s business practices to the auction description only after people complained.
In a statement, Anthea Peers, president of Christie’s Europe, Middle East, and Africa, said the auction house had made a deliberate decision sell the collection under Heidi Horten’s name, “thus not obscuring any element of the history of the fortune of Helmut Horten, as an anonymous or private sale could have allowed.
“Christie’s decision to take on the sale of jewelry 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, including health care, children’s welfare, and access to the arts. For our part, Christie’s felt it important to donate a significant portion of its final proceeds to organizations that further advance Holocaust research and education.”
The statement added: “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 WFDB, however, isn’t satisfied.
“Although we are aware that Christie’s has made a concession to the universal public outcry against this auction by stating that it will make a significant contribution from its final proceeds to Holocaust research and education, we feel it necessary to express our outrage at this auction.
“If Christie’s insists on holding the Horten auction…the major portion of the proceeds [should] be donated by Christie’s to charities supporting the welfare of Holocaust survivors, as well as commemoration and education. For the sake of transparency, we also request that the amount of the contribution and the recipient organizations be announced to the public.”
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