Controversy over auction of £118m of Nazi-linked jewels owned by billionaire heiress Heidi Horten

Some of the jewelry being auctioned from the collection of the late Heidi Horten. Credit: AP

Jewish groups have condemned a £118 million auction of jewels belonging to a billionaire heiress whose husband made his fortune in Nazi Germany.

Christie's auction house is putting 700 pieces of jewellery under the hammer from the collection of the late Heidi Horten, an Austrian rich-lister whose German husband built a retail empire.

The lots include a record-setting ruby ring that Mrs Horten bought for $30m (£24m) in 2015, a dazzling diamond necklace expected to fetch at least $15m (almost £12m), and more Bulgari jewels than ever assembled for a single auction.

But a Jewish human rights group is calling on Christie’s to withdraw the sale, saying the billions in riches amassed by Mrs Horten's husband — Helmut Horten — had roots in Nazi Germany.Mr Horten was a member of the Nazi party and took over Jewish firms as their owners fled 1930s Germany.

The Christie's auction house, in Switzerland , says the sale from “one of the greatest jewellery collections” is expected to reap some $150m (£118m).

An employee of Christie's displays the Great Mogul Emerald and Diamond Necklace by Harry Winston. Credit: AP

Mrs Horten died last year aged 81, with a fortune of $2.9 billion (£2.3bn), according to Forbes.

Proceeds from the auction are said to be going to benefit her Vienna art museum, welfare for children, and medical research.

But the auction has been steeped in controversy, stoking anger among Jewish groups and sparking calls for the sale to be halted.

As criticism of the auction grew, Christie’s announced it planned to give some of the profits from the sale to Holocaust education.

The sale, entitled 'The World of Heidi Horten,' has already begun online, but also takes place in-person in two parts on Wednesday and Friday at a ritzy Geneva hotel.

Visitors look of the Bulgari jewels displayed in display case during the exhibition of 'The World of Heidi Horten'. Credit: AP

The jewellery was neither taken nor purchased from Jewish people. But the riches that paid for the collection had roots in the Nazi era.

Christie’s said the jewellery was all bought starting in the early 1970s and up until last year, when Mrs Horten died.

The Simon Wiesenthal Center, a Los Angeles-based Jewish human rights group, insisted that Christie’s must withdraw the sale.

The group said the billions in riches amassed by Mrs Horten’s husband were the “sum of profits from Nazi ‘Aryanisation’ of Jewish department stores” under Nazi Germany.

Helmut Horten, who died in 1987, acquired several Jewish businesses under Nazi rule - the first was the textile company Alsberg after its Jewish owners fled in 1936.

Peter Hoeres, an historian at the University of Würzburg, Germany, was commissioned by Mrs Horten to write an extensive study looking into her husband's business empire.

He described Mr Horten's story as "complicated".

His report lays out the creeping, and eventually overbearing, squeeze put on Jewish-owned businesses.

The Sunrise Ruby, a diamond ring by Cartier that is worth up to an estimated $20 million (£15 million). Credit: AP

Tens of thousands of Jewish-owned retail stores were “aryanised” - meaning their values were depressed by boycott measures, propaganda attacks, and other pressures from the authorities in the 1930s.

Many Jewish people got no compensation and some received “hidden payments,” while most buyers - possibly like Mr Horten - “profited” from persecution measures.

The study said Mr Horten’s personal fortunes swelled during the war years.

In a document written in English, attributed to the Control Commission for Germany under the postwar British authorities, Mr Horten was described as “a scoundrel of the worst type” and “a thoroughly depraved character” who should be brought to justice.

After the defeat of the Nazis in 1945, Horten was imprisoned by Britain for two years and lost a lot of his holdings.

The pieces going on sale include the 90-carat "Briolette of India" diamond necklace by Harry Winston. Credit: AP

But in 1948, after being released, he leveraged loans to create what would become the fourth-largest department store chain in Germany, Horten AG - a brand name established during the Nazi period.

The businessman amassed a far greater fortune than he had built before or during the war, said Mr Hoeres, who has no connection to Christie’s.

“Mr Horten’s business activities during the Second World War are well-documented, and that is something that Christie’s carefully considered when pitching for this collection,” said Max Fawcett, head of the jewelry department at Christie’s Geneva.

“We took on this collection in the understanding that 100% of the final sale proceeds will go to philanthropic causes.

“We cannot erase history, but hopefully the money from this sale will go to do good in the future."

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