Amid Controversy, 'Collector's Dream' Goes for $196M

Jewish groups slam sale of late billionaire Heidi Horten's gems, citing husband's Nazi-era dealings
By Jenn Gidman,  Newser Staff
Posted May 15, 2023 10:05 AM CDT
Mired in Controversy, $196M Jewelry Sale Smashes Record
A 90.36 carat Briolette of India diamond necklace by Harry Winston, estimated between $10 million and $15.6 million, is seen at Christie's in Geneva on May 8.   (Salvatore Di Nolfi/Keystone via AP)

What's been billed as an "unparalleled collection of jewelry" and a "collector's dream" has now fetched an unparalleled price. A sale series featuring more than 700 gems of the late Austrian billionaire Heidi Horten—a collection described by Christie's as holding everything from "showstopping diamonds, rubies, and jade to outstanding pieces from masters of a generation," including Bulgari, Harry Winston, and Tiffany—sold at auction last week in Geneva for $196 million. Per CNN, that price tag for a private jewelry collection far surpasses the one set by actor Elizabeth Taylor's collection in 2011, which went for $116 million.

But although proceeds from the sale are set to be funneled to various charitable and philanthropic causes, including medical research, child welfare, and Holocaust education, the controversy behind the collection has raised the ire of multiple Jewish organizations. Horten inherited billions from her husband, Helmut Horten, who died in 1987—and who critics say amassed his fortune by building a department store empire after helping to squeeze Jews out of business in Nazi Germany. "The auction should be put on hold until a serious effort is made to determine what portion of this wealth came from Nazi victims," the American Jewish Committee wrote before the sale. The Jewish human rights group Simon Wiesenthal Center and the Holocaust Educational Trust similarly blasted the auction.

Max Fawcett, who heads Christie's jewelry department in Geneva, defends the "carefully considered" sale. "We cannot erase history, but hopefully the money from this sale will go to do good in the future," he says, per the AP. Although the Horten collection overall had been expected to bring in $150 million, not every piece exceeded sales expectations. For example, a "pigeon blood"-colored ruby and diamond Cartier ring that Christie's thought would go for $20 million only brought in $14.5 million. Still, the assemblage is said to be "the collection of a lifetime." "From Bulgari to Van Cleef & Arpels, from a small personal memory piece to the Briolette of India, this is a collector's dream," Rahul Kadakia, Christie's international head of jewelry, said in a pre-auction release. Last week's two-day sale will be capped off by an online auction on Monday, as well as another online auction in November. (More jewelry stories.)

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