Christie’s Faces Continued Fallout from Its Controversial Heidi Horten Auction

The Tel Aviv Museum of Art is cancelling a restitution conference with Christie's over its hosting of the jewelry sale.

Despite bringing in more than $200 million and setting records for the most expensive private jewelry collection, a contentious Christie's sale featuring pieces owned by the late heiress Heidi Horten continues to haunt the auction house.

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Jewelry sits behind glass cases in dark room
A selection of jewelry from the “World of Heidi Horten” sales. Fabrice Coffrini/AFP via Getty Images

The sale, conducted in May, sold hundreds of jewelry pieces to surpass the $137 million realized by the 2011 sale of Elizabeth Taylor’s jewelry collection. A ruby Cartier ring fetched $14.5 million alone, while a Bulgari diamond ring brought in $10 million. But the auction also drew criticism from numerous Jewish rights organizations over Horten’s source of wealth. She inherited nearly $1 billion from her husband Helmut Horten, a German retail businessman who was once a member of the Nazi party and purchased companies from Jews pressured to sell during the Nazi era in a practice known as “Aryanization.”

Now a Tel Aviv museum is cancelling a Christie’s conference scheduled for December over the house’s decision to host the auction. Planned in celebration of the 25th anniversary of the Washington Conference Principles, a treaty urging the identification and return of artwork confiscated by the Nazis, the conference would have featured historians, attorneys and descendants of Holocaust survivors. The Holocaust Survivors Foundation USA recently urged the Tel Aviv Museum of Art to cancel the event, calling it “a platform within the Jewish State for Holocaust profiteers to justify their plunder.”

The museum “is attentive to criticism and bound by public sentiment and has decided not to host the Reflecting on Restitution conference with Christie’s,” the Tel Aviv Museum of Art told Israeli newspaper Israel Hayom.  The conference was part of a year-long initiative by the auction house marking its 25 years of restitution efforts, with similar panels in cities like London, Paris and Vienna. “We respect the Tel Aviv Museum of Art’s decision,” said Christie’s in a statement to Observer. “We continue to believe in the value and importance of holding a forum for discussion about restitution in Tel Aviv and will hope to organize such a conversation at another opportunity.”

The controversy surrounding the ‘World of Heidi Horten’

Earlier this year, during the “World of Heidi Horten” preview period, Christie’s began to draw scrutiny over a lack of transparency regarding the collection’s links to Nazi persecution. While proceeds of Horten’s jewelry sale were set to benefit the Heidi Horten Foundation, which supports medical research and art accessibility, Christie’s eventually committed to donating a portion of its own proceeds toward Holocaust research and education. The auction house also added a mention of Helmut Horten’s purchase of “Jewish businesses sold under duress” within the sale’s description. “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.”

Critiques persisted throughout the lead-up to the sale. The American Jewish Committee urged the auction be withdrawn until Christie’s could determine how much of it came from Nazi victims, while the Simon Wiesenthal Center demanded it either be withdrawn or offered alongside “exhaustive catalogues” of the lots. Meanwhile, the World Federation of Diamond Bourses called the sale “appalling” and urged that the proceeds be publicly donated to groups supporting Holocaust survivors. Some organizations earmarked to receive a portion of Christie’s proceeds from the sale, such as Yad Vashem, Israel’s official memorial to Holocaust victims, have reportedly declined the donation because of its source.

In a recent London panel held as part of the Reflecting on Restitution initiative, Peers said the sale’s controversy has led to “deep introspection” and challenged Christie’s to engage more in conversations over the source of intergenerational wealth. “As distinguished from the restitution matters we address on a daily basis, which are about uncovering the ownership history of objects and recovering the lost stories of families, the Heidi Horten sale highlighted the expectation that the market widen the lens for which we are examining the objects coming to auction,” she said. Peers also noted that Christie’s “should have been more transparent in our materials when the sale was announced. This is one of the key learnings that we will carry forward.”

Christie’s Faces Continued Fallout from Its Controversial Heidi Horten Auction