To mark the 25th anniversary of the agreement that emerged from the 1998 Washington Conference on Holocaust Era Assets—a joint U.S. State Department and Holocaust Memorial Museum program—Christie’s launched the event series “Reflecting on Restitution.”
The world’s largest auction house has already convened scholars, legal experts, researchers and others in Amsterdam, Paris and Vienna this year, and it will do so in the coming months in Berlin, London, New York and Tel Aviv, per the Christie’s website.
Normally, Israelis could take pride in the Tel Aviv Museum of Art hosting an event with Christie’s, but if the museum goes forward with the event, slated for December, critics say that it would lend credence to the auction house that opted to profit off a collection of jewels with ties to Nazi-looted Jewish business.
The collection, which Christie’s sold for $156 million, belonged to the wife of Helmut Horten, a billionaire who made his money in part by taking over former Jewish businesses during World War II.
“It would be a tremendous shame—and a real disgrace—if the museum went forward with this conference,” Joel Greenberg, a Pennsylvania-based philanthropist and businessman, whose foundation works closely with Holocaust survivors, told JNS.
The Tel Aviv Museum of Art hosting the event with Christie’s would be “a stain on the museum’s reputation,” Greenberg said. “It would be a stamp of approval.”
Sam Dubbin, lawyer in Coral Gables, Fla., told JNS that Christie’s is “justifying the accumulation of wealth based upon human-rights violations—the murder and confiscation of Jews’ properties.”
“The Tel Aviv Museum of Art shouldn’t touch Christie’s with a 10-foot pole until it does right,” said Dubbin, who works on a pro bono basis with the Holocaust Survivors Foundation USA and has represented Holocaust survivors and their families in restitution claims for more than 20 years.
A ‘stunning assemblage’ of hate
The Christie’s website describes Heidi Horten as “an Austrian philanthropist known for her elegance, glamor and fine taste,” who “amassed one of the world’s most brilliant jewelry collections as well as a stunning assemblage of decorative arts, and modern and contemporary art, the latter of which is housed in the Heidi Horten Collection museum in Vienna.”
The auction house adds that Helmut’s business practices “during the Nazi era, when he purchased Jewish businesses sold under duress, are well documented.”
The Horten estate’s proceeds will go to the Heidi Horten Foundation, which supports the Horten collection, “as well as medical research, child welfare and other philanthropic activities that she supported for many decades,” per Christie’s.
Christie’s added that it “will make a significant contribution from its final proceeds of the auction to organizations that further advance Holocaust research and education,” and “it will be up to these organizations, if they so wish, to communicate about these donations.”
After Christie’s reportedly approached Yad Vashem to offer a donation, the Israeli Holocaust memorial declined to accept it. According to a letter that was provided to JNS, Dani Dayan, chairman of Yad Vashem, rejected a donation from Christie’s from the sale proceeds from the auction house’s president and director of its Israel operation. (Neither Yad Vashem nor Tel Aviv Museum of Art responded to queries from JNS.)
‘Fruit of a poisonous tree’
Christie’s should have first compensated the Jewish heirs of those whose property Helmut Horten stole and then it should support Holocaust survivors—50,000 of whom are languishing in poverty, according to Greenberg.
“It’s really a silent crisis,” he said. “People who lived through hell, and now they’re wondering where their next meal will come from—having to choose between food and heat. It’s a horrible situation.”
Greenberg dismissed Christie’s claim that the jewelry was “kosher” to sell because it wasn’t looted, as well as its decision to donate the money to the Horten Foundation.
“Obviously, the proceeds used to buy the jewelry were looted. Why should you be able to do indirectly what you cannot do directly?” he told JNS. “What’s the difference if you’re brokering the fruit of a poisonous tree or you’re brokering the poisonous tree yourself? It doesn’t make sense.”
Donating some of its earnings to the foundation, which supports a museum in Horten’s name in Vienna, is also unacceptable to Greenberg.
“The foundation is supporting a museum that is glorifying the name of someone who was definitely involved in the looting of Jewish businesses, that’s a negative not a positive,” he said. “It’s not their money to give away.”
‘Has humanity learned nothing?’
David Schaecter, 94, is president of Holocaust Survivors Foundation USA. A survivor, Schaecter penned a May 14 letter to Ron Huldai, the mayor of Tel Aviv who is also chairman of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art.
“It unquestionably trivializes the Holocaust to justify using money brutally extracted from the Jewish people in order to support the profiteer’s chosen ‘charitable purposes.’ The money, and those decisions, belong to the victims’ families, period,” Schaecter wrote.
“We survivors have seen this infuriating charade too often. Holocaust profiteers are never forced to disgorge their bloody fortunes and are embraced in polite society,” he added. “Has humanity learned nothing?”
Dubbin, the pro bono attorney to the Holocaust survivors foundation, called Christie’s justifications for the sale “grotesque rationalizations of not doing the right thing.”
“The idea that because the Horten foundation is going to donate money to charities of its choosing that that justifies—it would be like saying, they looted this artwork and they’re going to make a museum so the public can see it, and they’re not going to charge anybody for it,” Dubbin told JNS. “That’s the same logic.”
The survivors’ foundation has said that it is unacceptable that the Tel Aviv Museum of Art endorse Christie’s decision to go forward as it did with the sale.
“You’re going to now celebrate the so-called restitution bona fides of an organization that has gone in the gutter for money when it had the opportunity to make a profound statement?” posed Dubbin.
The attorney has “high hopes” that Israeli Jewish leaders will recognize the offense to survivors and “avoid becoming a party to this kind of disgraceful Holocaust trivialization, which is what the Horten family and Christie’s have done to justify their actions.”
“Yad Vashem gets it,” Dubbin said. “I hope the Tel Aviv museum will do the same.”