A Bulgari sapphire and diamond necklace will be on sale at the auction in Switzerland

Geneva (AFP) - Jewels belonging to an Austrian billionaire whose German husband made his fortune under the Nazis raked in more than $155 million Wednesday at an auction held amid criticism from Jewish groups.

Christie’s offered up nearly 100 sparkling pieces during the controversial in-person sale in Geneva Wednesday, but prices raked in for some of the auction highlights fell short of expectations.

As the bidding began Wednesday afternoon, Christie’s international head of jewellery Rahul Kadakia said the auction house’s decision to go ahead despite mounting criticism had come “after careful consideration of the significance of the sale’s philanthropic impact”.

He stressed that the proceeds would go towards good causes, including for “vitally important Holocaust research and education”, but critics of the sale have dismissed this as an inadequate response.

The entire collection, which Christie’s aims to sell in online and in-person auctions by the end of the year, consists of 700 jewels, including pieces from 20th-century designers such as Cartier, Bulgari and Van Cleef & Arpels.

They belonged to Heidi Horten who died last year aged 81, with a fortune of $2.9 billion, according to Forbes.

With just a portion of the collection now sold, the auction has already eclipsed previous records set by Christie’s in sales of properties that belonged to actress Elizabeth Taylor in 2011 and the “Maharajas and Mughal Magnificence” collection in 2019, both of which exceeded $100 million.

- ‘Strong result’ -

But during Wednesday’s sale there were a number of disappointing results.

Among the main attractions was the Sunrise Ruby, which had been estimated at 14 -18 million Swiss francs ($15-20 million), but it sold for just over 13 million francs, including commission, Christie’s said.

And the massive 90.36-carat “Briolette of India” diamond pendant and accompanying diamond necklace, estimated at 9-14 million francs, fetched just 6.3 million, including commission.

Asked if he was disappointed, Kadakia pointed to the overall result, with was higher than the $150 million Christie’s had expected to fetch for the entire 700-piece collection.

“We achieved $155 million on the first sale alone so I think it was a very strong result,” he told AFP.

A report published in January 2022 by historians commissioned by the Horten Foundation said Heidi Horton’s husband Helmut Horton, who died in Switzerland in 1987, had been a member of the Nazi party before being expelled.

In 1936, three years after Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany, Horten took over textile company Alsberg, based in the western city of Duisburg, after its Jewish owners fled.

He later took over several other shops that had belonged to Jewish owners before the war.

- ‘Indecent’ -

A growing number of Jewish groups have asked Christie’s to halt the Horten sale.

“This sale is indecent,” Yonathan Arfi, president of the Representative Council of Jewish Institutions in France (CRIF), said Tuesday.

The Simon Wiesenthal Center (SWC), a Jewish human rights organisation, issued a statement last week saying Christie’s “must suspend this sale” until all research into links to Nazi-era acquisitions have been completed.

And the American Jewish Committee criticised Christie’s decision to contribute proceeds from the sale to a Holocaust research and education organisation.

“It is not enough that this sale will benefit a charitable foundation or that Christie’s will make an unspecified donation for Holocaust education,” it said.

“Instead, the auction should be put on hold until a serious effort is made to determine what portion of this wealth came from Nazi victims,” it added.

But the auction house defended the sale.

“The foundation and Christie’s know that all of the proceeds are going towards charities, the charities are child protection and welfare, medical research and access to the arts,” Kadakia told AFP.

“Christie’s separately is making a significant donation towards Holocaust research and education,” he added.

“We believe that in the end, proceeds of the sale is going to do good and this is the reason we decided to take on the project.”

In addition to 400 of the Horten lots to be sold by Christie’s in May, another 300 pieces will be sold online in November.