Controversial Collectibles: The Horten Family Collection
May 3, 2023
With total sales estimated in excess of $150 million, the multi-day auction of the Horten family jewels was poised to become the most expensive single-owner collection ever sold.
However, with attention moving away from the sparkling diamonds and toward a dark history, 'was' might be the key word in that first sentence.
The event, coined by Christie's as 'The World of Heidi Horten - An Unparalleled Collection of Jewelry', features more than 700 pieces with multiple lots carrying pre-auction estimates above $1 million.
It's undoubtably an incredible array of some of the world's finest diamonds, but question now swirl over whether or not the collection was built on the exploitation of Jewish-owned businesses by Nazi Germany.
In 1966, Heidi Jelinek married a man more than three decades her age, Helmut Horten. While Heidi hailed from Vienna, Austria, which was under Nazi occupation at the time of her birth in 1941, Helmut was working at a retail department store in the North Rhine Valley town of Duisburg, Germany. As the Nazi party rose to power across Europe, Helmut Horton saw an opportunity and took advantage.
In 1933, Horten acquired the store he worked for from its Jewish owners, who felt mounting pressure to leave Germany. That purchase would lay the foundation for Horten's lucrative business model. Over the next few years, Helmut Horten made a name, and a lot of money, for himself by acquiring Jewish-owned retail stores across Germany for pennies on the dollar. With the support of Nazi authorities who helped broker the sales, Helmut would purchase the businesses at a significant discount and access all of its assets.
As Allied forces put an end to the Nazis' atrocities, Horten did his best to distance himself from the Third Reich, later writing that he never supported Nazi ideology. His efforts were only partially successful, as there was a literal paper trail that showcased his ties to the grotesque movement. Throughout the 1930s, Horten had purchased newspaper advertisements to exhibit his new acquisitions. Those ads often made references to the fact that the stores were now owned by an Aryan, and no longer in control of their Jewish founders. The acts of Helmut Horten and other like-minded German's during the war years were later featured in a book titled Nazi Billionaires: The Dark History of Germany's Wealthiest Dynasties by David de Jong.
The auction, initially headlined simply for its record-breaking potential, is now flustered by questions of ethics and morality.
Heidi Horten, the namesake of the event, entered the script decades after her husband had built his retail empire, at least in part, through abhorrent tactics. When Helmut died in 1987, he left Heidi an estate worth close to $1 billion with assets that included art, jewels, and one of the world's largest yachts, the Carinthia VII.
Through the latter half of the 20th century and early 21st century, Heidi Horten would amass an art collection worthy of a museum and in fact, a private one was built in 2019 to house her gallery. With more than 500 works featuring the likes of Andy Warhol, Pablo Picasso, Jean- Michel Basquiat, and Gerhard Richter, the museum opened in Vienna last year, just days before Horten's death in June.
The World of Heidi Horten opens on May 3rd in Geneva and is scheduled to close its initial sales on May 15th and remaining lots scattered through November. After the first batch of marketing material failed to make mention of the Horten family's ties to Nazi Germany, Christie's released a public statement through their CEO Guillaume Cerutti.
It was never Christie’s intention to hide information about the well-documented history of Mr. Horten and we have added relevant information to our sale materials and website to ensure that the facts are clear to all - Christie's
Many of the claims raised by journalists and authors regarding Helmut Horten and his World War II-era ventures have been rejected by a historian, Peter Hoeres, who was hired by Heidi to investigate her late husband's past.
If the auction were to reach its $150 million estimate, it would surpass the 2011 sale of Elizabeth Taylor's private collection as the most expensive single-owner jewelry sale. If the Horten sale reaches $100 million, it would be just the third collection to do so, joining Taylor and the 2019 Maharajas and Mughal sale. As with any high-profile sale, provenance is a key element when establishing valuations and in the case of the 700+ jewels scheduled to sell, none, according to Christie's, were acquired directly from one of the businesses bought by Helmut in the 1930s. The vast majority of pieces were collected in the 1970's and 1980's with other designs by brands like Cartier secured by the Horten estate in the 2000's.
At the time of publication, Christie's has announced that in addition to proceeds from the sale going towards The Heidi Horten Foundation, a 'significant contribution' will be directed to organizations that 'advance Holocaust research and education.'
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