Christie's vows to make donation to Holocaust education

Expectation for largest-ever jewelry sale marred by owner’s enrichment via Nazi laws

Research finds that under threat of being sent to concentration camps, Jewish businesspeople sold companies to Heidi Horten’s husband in 1930s below market value

The 'Briolette of India' necklace featuring a 90-carat diamond on sale as part of Heidi Horten's collection. (Christie's)
The 'Briolette of India' necklace featuring a 90-carat diamond on sale as part of Heidi Horten's collection. (Christie's)

The world’s most valuable jewelry collection not owned by a royal family is set to be auctioned next month, despite at least part of the wealth of the Austrian family that owned the pieces having been built on the purchase of companies sold under Nazi duress.

Hundreds of jewels and pieces of jewelry from the collection of Austrian heiress Heidi Horten will go on sale on May 3 at Christie’s auction house.

Christie’s believes the sale will raise over $150 million, beating the $137 million from the 2011 sale of pieces that belonged to actress Elizabeth Taylor and the $109 million sale held by Qatar’s ruling Al Thani family in 2019.

Items up for auction in the Horten sale include the Briolette of India, a 90.38-carat colorless diamond that was cut by famed jeweler Harry Winston, and Cartier’s “Sunrise and Ruby” diamond ring, featuring a 25-carat highly-prized “Pigeon’s Blood” ruby.

Some of the fortune built by Horten’s husband Helmet was based on companies that he bought in the 1930s from Jews who were compelled to sell them by the Nazi regime, The New York Times reported Thursday.

Historians, journalists, and the daughter of a businessman who worked for a company bought by Horten told the newspaper that the philanthropic aims of the auction did not make up for the past.

Heidi Horten wearing the ‘Briolette of India’ necklace featuring a 90-carat diamond (Christie’s)

“[Helmet Horten] 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,” said journalist David de Jong, who recently published a book titled “Nazi Billionaires: The Dark History of Germany’s Wealthiest Dynasties.”

Prior to 1938, Jewish business owners came under immense pressure to sell their businesses and possessions, often at a massive discount. After 1938, those sales were forced and the prices offered were usually even lower.

Historians said Horten purchased entities during both those periods of time, across Nazi-occupied Europe.

According to de Jong, on a number of occasions Horten paid less than 65 percent of the value of the companies he bought, including in the purchase of the Alsberg department store in Duisburg, Germany in 1936.

After that sale, Horten placed an ad in a Nazi newspaper saying that the store had “passed into Aryan ownership,” the report said.

Journalist Stephanie Stephan, whose father was on the board of a company that was sold under duress to Horten, published an affidavit from a Jewish business owner who said Horten threatened them with being sent to a concentration camp if they did not agree to sell.

“My father rebelled against Horten from the very beginning because he knew that he had already forced several Jewish owners of department stores in Germany to sell their department stores for ridiculous sums,” Stephan said

“He immediately dismissed my father. Horten made sure that my father was imprisoned several times and finally was expelled from the Netherlands,” she said.

The ‘Sunrise Ruby’ ring, on sale as part of Heidi Horten’s collection (Christie’s)

Historian Peter Hoeres, hired last year by Heidi Horten, said that his research shows that Horten never finalized the sale of that company, and he disputed the affidavit.

Hoeres also said that while the family had benefited from the sale of Jewish businesses, the level of wealth Horten attained from those purchases had been exaggerated, and that he had been “comparatively fair” in the prices he paid.

Hoeres’s report was criticized and the historian later said that he regretted using the phrase “comparatively fair,” as it meant people thought he was minimizing Horten’s actions.

“As a historian, I could not agree with the main narratives in the Hoeres report,” Birgit Kirchmayr, a member and senior adviser of the Austrian Art Restitution Advisory Board, told the Times.

Kirchmayr said it was not acceptable to justify Horten’s actions by saying he “was not worse than others.”

“You can say that the jewelry itself is not looted,” Kirchmayr said. “But the money is connected with the Nazi past, and this is a fact that has to be mentioned in the biographies of the collectors.”

A Nazi rally. The sign in the background says ‘Kauft nicht bei Juden,’ or Don’t buy from Jews. (National Archives and Record Administration)

Christie’s added a mention of the Jewish businesses having been sold under duress, and has said it will donate some of the sale’s proceeds to Holocaust research and education funds.

“The business practices of Mr. Horten during the Nazi era, when he purchased Jewish businesses sold under duress, are well documented,” read a statement added to the sale site.

“We are aware there is a painful history,” Anthea Peers, president of Christie’s Europe, Middle East and Africa, told the Times.

“We weighed that up against various factors,” she said, emphasizing that the proceeds will go to a charitable foundation established by Horten.

Heidi Horten, who died in 2022, was 19 years old when she met Helmut, who was over 30 years older than her. When he died in 1987 she inherited nearly a billion dollars.

The Heidi Horten Foundation will fund a public museum in Vienna for her art collection, and will fund medical research, the Guardian reported.

According to Harper’s Bazaar, Horten owned artworks by Pablo Picasso, Andy Warhol, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Yves Klein.

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