There it is, a billionaire widow, diamonds, and a fortune built on Nazi plunder. In his play La Circe (1624), Lope de Vega wrote: "Que la sombra de un hombre poderoso / claro en linaje / mil delitos cubre" — That the shadow of a powerful man / clear in lineage / covers a thousand crimes.
Honore de Balzac would express a similar sentiment centuries later:
Behind every great fortune lies a great crime.- Honore de Balzac
So, what crime is behind Heidi Horten's private jewelrycollection, which will be auctioned off at Christie's in Geneva in May? Horten, who died last year, was an art collector and philanthropist who inherited a $3 billion fortune from her husband, Helmut Horten, a German businessman and owner of the Horten AG department store chainwho also belonged to the Nazi party and amassed his wealth during World War II.
Heidi Horten met Helmut when she was 19 and he was 51, but they married six years later despite their age difference.
Heidi was able to acquire what is now the largest collection of jewelry ever sold by Christie's, with pieces including unique creations by Cartier, Harry Winston, Boivin, and Van Cleef & Arpels, as well as an important selection of pearls, jade, and Bulgari creations from the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s.
Her jewelry boxeven came to house Marie Antoinette's pearl, which the Austrian heiress purchased at a Sotheby's auction in 2018 for a record-breaking $36 million.
According to Rahul Kadakia, a jewelry expert at Christie's, "Horten created a very sophisticated collection, combining antique and modern designs from the world’s leading jewelry houses."
The collection is expected to sell for more than $150 million, a record for the auction house. Only twice has a sale surpassed $100 million, when Elizabeth Taylor's jewelry collection was auctioned off in 2011, and later in 2019 when pieces from Indian royalty were sold.
The so-called Briolette of India, a 90-carat diamondnecklace made by Harry Winston and originally sold by Cartier in 1909, is among the jewels from Horten's collection; also included is the so-called Grand Mogul, another pendant necklace by Harry Winston, but this time made of emeralds and valued between $500,000 and $700,000.
Christie's will auction 400 of the 700 jewels live at the Hotel Des Bergues in Geneva on May 10 and 12, as well as online between May 3 and 15, with another auction in November.
The excitement surrounding the sale has resulted in a preview tour of the most important pieces in cities such as Hong Kong, Shanghai, Vienna, New York, London, and Singapore throughout the month of April.
The auction proceeds will benefit the Heidi Horten Foundation, which will be used to fund medical research and other charitable activities, as well as the upkeep of the museum of modern and contemporary art that the billionaire widow opened in Vienna on June 9, 2022, just three days before her death.
Horten's death at the age of 81 at her home on Lake Wörthersee in Austria was described as "a completely unexpected death."
Horten, who married twice more after being widowed in 1987, collected more than just jewelry. She began collecting modern and contemporary art in the 1990s.
The $1 billion she inherited from her husband in 1987 propelled her to the Forbes list of the world's 500 wealthiest people and enabled her to add to the couple's existing art collection, which included works by Joan Miró, Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, René Magritte, Marc Chagall, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Andy Warhol.
Her first two purchases would be a painting by Mose Kisling and another by Emmanuel Mané-Katz, both purchased at an auction in Tel Aviv in 1994.
Horten decided to collaborate with the Leopold Museum in Vienna in 2018 to present 170 works from her private collection in a temporary exhibition called WOW! The Heidi Horten Collection features American expressionism and pop art.
That first contact with the art world inspired the heiress to pursue one of her dreams and open her own museum, which was fraught with controversy due to the true source of her enormous fortune.
To appease the critics, she commissioned a report on her husband's businessactivities, which concluded that, while the magnate took advantage of Nazi policy by purchasing a property from plundered Jewish fortunes at rock-bottom prices, he had not actively participated in the plundering himself. Horten said:
I am proud, with my collection and the construction of the museum, to have created something lasting, which future generations will also be able to experience when they visit my museum and take joy in the art that has given me such joy for so long.- Heidi Horten
The statement was later published in a post on the gallery's official Instagram account on February 13, the day before Horten's 82nd birthday.
Horten's gallery boasts a collection of over 500 works in a 16,000-square-meter historic building in the heart of Vienna, between the State Opera and the Albertina Museum, which the collector acquired and refurbished for approximately $30 million.
"It is the museum created by a woman who built a fantastic collection in the last 35 years that is now among the 200 most important in the world," said Agnes Husslein-Arco, director of the Heidi Horten Collection, prior to the inauguration.
It is a collection whose first pieces were purchased in another historic auction at Sotheby's in 1996 when the heiress spent up to $22 million on works by Francis Bacon, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, and Paul Klee in just a few hours. It is a sum that bidders at Christie's may also spend on her jewelry this time around.