(JTA) – Christie’s has announced that it will not follow through with plans to hold a second auction of jewelry from an estate that was partially built on Nazi plunder.
The announcement on Thursday comes following a campaign led by Jewish groups against Christie’s that began earlier this year, when the elite auction house sold jewelry belonging to Heidi Horten, the late heiress to the fortune of her husband Helmut Horten, a former Nazi Party member. In the 1930s, Helmut Horten bought Jewish businesses that were relinquished by their owners under duress from Nazi officials and went on to make a fortune as a department store owner.
The sale in May totaled $202 million, making it the largest-ever auction of jewelry. But public pressure on Christie’s continued following that sale, as Holocaust survivors castigated the auction house over the course of months for, in their view, obscuring the legacy of a Nazi businessman and then profiting from his illicit gains.
On Thursday, Christie’s acknowledged that it has felt the impact of that pressure campaign and said it has decided to cancel the sale of an additional 300 items from the Horten jewelry collection, which were supposed to go on the auction block in November.
“The sale of the Heidi Horten jewelry collection has provoked intense scrutiny, and the reaction to it has deeply affected us and many others, and we will continue to reflect on it,” Anthea Peers, president of Christie’s EMEA division said in a statement.
She added that the funds raised in the May sale, benefiting a new foundation set up in Heidi Horten’s name, are designated for medical research, children’s welfare and access to the arts. In addition to those fields, the Heidi Horten Foundation funds an eponymous art museum in Vienna.
Holocaust survivor David Schaecter, who serves as president of Holocaust Survivor Foundation USA and has been an outspoken critic of Christie’s, welcomed the announcement.
“We are pleased to hear that the global outrage surrounding Christie’s sale of the Horten Foundation’s ill-gotten assets — derived from the theft of Jewish property during World War II — has affected the auction house and caused them to cancel their planned sale of additional Horten jewelry this fall,” Schaecter said in a statement. “We are glad that they recognized the great pain additional sales of Horten art and jewelry would cause Holocaust survivors.”
At first, the outcry over the sale centered on Christie’s alleged whitewashing of the Hortens’ reputation by failing to disclose the origin of much of the family’s wealth. Then, Holocaust survivor groups and others focused on the fact that Christie’s was profiting from the sale.
Critics of Christie’s dismissed the auction house’s pledge to donate some of its proceeds to Holocaust education and research as insufficient. Jewish groups — including Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust museum, and the Claims Conference, which is responsible for distributing reparations from Germany to survivors — have so far rejected donations offered by Christie’s. It remains unclear whether Christie’s will acquiesce to demands that it donate all profits from the sale.
Schaecter’s group has recently been focused on a letter-writing campaign asking Austrian cultural institutions and government agencies to avoid collaborating with the Heidi Horten Collection, the art museum funded by the Horten estate. That effort follows an earlier campaign that successfully pressured the Tel Aviv Museum of Art to cancel an event about art restitution organized by Christie’s.
In his statement, Schaecter added that other houses considering sponsoring similar auctions should regard the Horten case as a warning.
“This is an important victory for Holocaust survivors and the global Jewish community — and a clear signal to all auction houses about the consequences of providing such a platform to sell these kinds of tainted goods,” Schaecter.