Is this beautiful bracelet, scheduled to go to auction May 3rd at Christie’s, an example of ‘blood jewelry’?

“It is truly shocking that Christie’s feels it can sell such jewelry with impunity and without consequences.”

These are the words of legal heavyweight Steven Lieberman, who is helping assemble a group to oppose tomorrow’s planned auction of the late Heidi Horten’s stunning collection, said to be one of the greatest ever amassed. Fine Art Globe is the first to report on the group’s formation. Lieberman remarked to the Fine Art Globe. “Did Christie’s think no one would notice what it was doing?”

The answer is probably so.

One of the most distressing things about the Holocaust — and a list of things that are distressing about the ugliest era of human history is long — is the sense that even today many who perpetrated or enabled it have not been held accountable.

In the wake of the world’s worst genocide, one ray of hope was that the civilized world had won and would penalize the barbarians who lost. And yet almost instantaneously, literally within a year of a war that had caused 80 million fatalities, including an intentional genocide that had murdered about 11 million, many of its guiltiest proponents had not only successfully dodged punishment, but were being welcomed back into polite society.

Only 21 Nazi war criminals faced justice at the Nuremberg Trials; only 11 were sentenced to death. But it’s not just a failure to punish tens of thousands of high-ranking true-believing ideological Nazis. It’s the way the world simply closed its eyes to their enablers, sometimes in an effort to pursue that vaunted “return to normal” optimistic Americans instantly seek after any tragedy. Other times, it’s just that the sinner was simply too compelling a dinner companion.

Heidi Horten, 1941-2022. In 2020, Forbes estimated her net worth at $3 billion; she owned a world-class art collection that has its own museum, a 315-foot yacht called Carinthia VII, and was said to enjoy hunting. (Photo: The Heidi Horten Foundation; Christie’s)

Wernher von Braun designed the V-2 rocket — the first long-range guided ballistic missile. The first artificial object to travel into space, it is chronically underestimated because it was only deployed by the Germans at the very end of the war — another six months with this killer might have turned the tide in favor of the Germans on the western front, and certainly would have killed many more than the 9000 Brits the V-2 claimed in 1944. No problem: Dr. von Braun knew a lot about rocketry so he was welcomed to the US with 1,600 other German scientists and engineers. Operation Paperclip determined that German know-how about rocketry, invisible ink, gliders and synthetic rubber were more important than the distant crimes of … a year earlier. Dr. von Braun worked for the US Army, helped develop Explorer 1 for NASA and winded up working for Walt Disney. Of course he did.

Hugo Boss was the official tailor for Nazi uniforms; chemical giant BASF created Zyklon B for concentration camp death chambers and Volkswagen was literally created by the labor wing of the Nazi party.

That’s business. I get it. All of these companies have made serious amends and paid major reparations.

But to me, the more nauseating examples are the social ones.

Magda Goebbels was essentially the First Lady of Germany. Her recipes and fashion sense served as a role model for Aryan housewives throughout the Third Reich. With the Russians closing in on Hitler’s bunker, Magda opted to poison all six of the children she shared with her husband, Joseph Goebbels, one of the worst human beings ever to walk the earth. Her eldest son, Harald Quandt, was a different story. Harald was the product of Magda’s first marriage to Günther Quandt, a rich older fellow she divorced before being swept off her feet by Goebbels. The handsome young Harald Quandt was a personal favorite of Hitler’s. Harald was a guest at his mother’s wedding to Goebbels, which was attended by Hitler, who is said to have considered young blonde Harald an exemplar of the Aryan ideal. Harald wasn’t poisoned like his younger siblings and didn’t commit suicide like his mother and stepfather. Instead, he became one of the richest men in Germany, with interests in hundreds of companies (e.g., 10% of Daimler Benz and 30% of BMW). Harald lived in peace and comfort and was frequently spotted on the society pages of German magazines, as were his daughters for decades after he perished in a private plane crash.

Richard Wagner, one of the greatest composers who ever lived, was a devoted and early fascist and an inspiration to the Fuhrer. While Wagner died in 1883, his son Siegfried Wagner managed to marry Winifred Marjorie Williams, a close friend of Hitler’s. Mrs. Wagner founded the Bayreuth Festival, specifically to promote the works of her father in law. During World War II, it was used to revive the spirits of German soldiers wounded in battle.

After the war, Winifred’s unapologetic support for the party earned her probation and a ban on participating in the festival. She handed it off to her sons Wolfgang and Wieland Wagner. They built it back up and soon enough Winifred was back on the society circuit. Wolfgang’s daughters Eva Wagner-Pasquier and Katharina Wagner run the Bayreuth Festival these days. In the 1970s, after Winifred died of old age, it put up a plaque honoring two Jewish singers who’d been exterminated.

I could go on and on. I often do.

The world has forgotten and forgiven these sins, so I try not to. When the novelist and playwright Günter Grass died in 2015—sixteen years after winning the Nobel prize—most obituaries about him characterized his early days in Hitler Youth as a boyhood indiscretion, a footnote to an otherwise exemplary life. My obituary remembered him differently. He too lived to a jolly old age free from the censure—or, to use today’s parlance, “cancellation”—one would expect to result from enthusiastically supporting the most murderous regime in history.

Which brings us to what’s being called “the largest jewelry sale in history.”

Starting Wednesday, May 3, prestigious auction house Christie’s is planning “The World of Heidi Horten.” According to the catalog, this “glorious assemblage comprises over 700 jewels, a true embodiment of Mrs Horten’s timeless elegance, glamour and taste for collecting. The collection is of impeccable quality and breadth, showcasing the art of jewellery in all its splendour.”

Surprisingly, Christie’s actually acknowledges the nasty way Mrs. Horten came into such a grand fortune, albeit in weak, oblique language. German businessman Helmut Horten—who became her first husband when she was 19 and met him in a hotel bar—died in 1987. He left the bulk of his fortune to the lovely Mrs. Horten, who died last year just days after the opening of her private art museum in Vienna, where her collection of Picasso, Francis Bacon, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Paul Klee and others is said to be worth nearly $1 billion. Christie’s writes that the “The business practices of Mr. Horten during the Nazi era, when he purchased Jewish businesses sold under duress, are well documented.”

“Well documented” likely refers to an article last week in the New York Times, in which Zachary Small notes how Christie’s has “had to grapple with the fact that Helmut Horten’s business empire was built atop his purchase of companies from Jews who were pressed to sell by the Nazis.”

“We are aware there is a painful history,” Christie’s executive Anthea Peers told the paper in a masterstroke of Orwellian doublespeak. Ultimately, the auction house concluded that the foundation Mrs. Horten started will do such good with the proceeds from the jewels that it outweighs any niggling concerns about how they fell into—and onto—Ms. Horten’s hands.

Fine Art Globe has reached out to Max Fawcett and Rahul Kadakia, who head jewelry sales at Christie’s —“jewellery” as the venerable house spells it. This story will be updated to include their responses if they choose to comment.

David de Jong, the author of Nazi Billionaires: The Dark History of Germany’s Wealthiest Dynasties, details how Helmut Horten hunted for bargains. In 1936, for example, when he was just 27, Horten purchased the Alsberg department store in Duisburg, Germany. He is said to have paid 65 percent of what the company was worth. He touted his acumen in the Nazi party newspaper, buying an ad that stated Alsberg had now “passed into Aryan ownership.”

Professor Peter Hoeres, Chair of Modern History at Julius Maximilian University, was hired by Mrs. Horten to consider the deeds of Mr. Horten. (Photo: Institut Für Geschichte)

In a particularly cynical bit of reputational whitewashing, Mrs. Horten hired Peter Hoeres, the Chair of Modern History at Julius Maximilian University, to reflect upon her husband’s deeds. In his 286 page report—Dr. Hoeres sent Fine Art Globe an English translation—Professor Hoeres and co-author Maximilian Kutzner consider earlier articles from Der Spiegel and Der Standard that claimed Helmut Horten built his fortune on the “ruins of Jewish existences” (Der Spiegel, Dec 20, 1987) and had a “Nazi taint” with a fortune “rooted in the Aryanization policy of the Nazis” (Der Standard May 31, 2020).

Hoeres perhaps unsurprisingly concludes that the man whose widow hired him had been the victim of “journalistic exaggeration” and notes that the period of some of his takeovers—Alsberg, for example—occurred before the policy of “Aryanization” became official in 1938.

This not only neglects to reflect the pressure Jewish business owners faced before Kristallnacht in November, 1938, it’s also, in my view, reprehensible in its failure to acknowledge the sheer disgustingness of these policies, official or not. The fact that Horten trumpeted his great Alsberg bargain in 1936 proves that Aryanization was clearly favored by the Nazi party, regardless of whether it was yet official policy. We also learn from the report—again, the one that Mrs. Horten commissioned—that poor Mr. Horten also “had to navigate his own complex relationship with the Nazis.” Sounds rough.

Professor Hoeres has objected to the Globe’s characterization of his portrayal of Horten and of the suggestion that his objectivity had been compromised by his willingness to be hired by Mrs. Horten in her efforts to take a magic eraser to her husband’s deeds. The Globe considered Hoeres’ points and stands by our characterization, but is including this bit from his report that he highlighted for us as an example of his toughness in describing his subject’s actions in acquiring his empire.

“[Horten] specifically looked for opportunities. In the takeovers that were successful for Horten, he profited from the sellers’ involuntary willingness to sell the company in the first place. Without the massive repression by the Nazi state on Jews in the mid and later 1930s, this would probably have been the case in only a few of the examples given, or in none at all.”

The professor also points out that “Horten was in a quite good relationship with the Lauters (the former owners of Alsberg) after 1945 up to the 1970s, which contradicts your storyline.”

The Globe doesn’t think these examples look as good for Hoeres’ objectivity (or basic decency, tbh) as the professor himself seems to believe. It’s possible that the professor’s English isn’t grasping how weakly he appears to be condemning the Third Reich, but “involuntary willingness” is the kind of sickening doublespeak that landed a phrase like Arbeit macht frei on the gates of Auschwitz.

As for Helmut Horten being on good terms with the Lauters … congratulations to Horten for having Jewish friends. Perhaps he even had one as a guest in his home!

Professor Hoeres told the Globe that he has authored a forthcoming biography of Helmut Horten (due Sept 2023) that describes how Horten “created the fourth largest German department store group at breakneck speed. His department stores were considered a ‘women’s paradise.’”

Other experts criticized Prof. Hoeres for sanitizing the deeds of Mr. Horten. The New York Times quotes Birgit Kirchmayr of the Austrian Art Restitution Advisory Board saying it is “not enough to just say that Horten ‘was not worse than others.’”

Prof. Hoeres defended his work and dove into the weeds to describe different purchases Horten made on the way to assembling his empire. Hoeres told Fine Art Globe, “We gave a clearly more differentiated answer than Birgit Kirchmayr thinks. In Duisburg, the department store was offered to Horten on terms that had already been negotiated. In Wattenscheid, the ‘Gauwirtschaftsamt’ intervened because the conditions seemed too favorable for the seller. Horten took more advantage of the situation in East Prussia. A comparison would be the department company Hertie, where the “Aryanization” was much more drastic.”

He also pointed out that he was the first scholar to report on Horten’s use of forced labor. Hoeres told the Globe, “If I had been the willing writer of Heidi Horton, as you suggest, I would not have written at first (no Kirchmayr or de Jong had done this before) about the forced labourers and Berlin-Johannisthal.”

Munich journalist Stephanie Stephan is another of many who have disputed the Hoeres Report’s conclusions. She reports that her father Reinhold Stephan served as a director for Gerzon, the Dutch fashion company. Arthur Marx, one of Gerzon’s owners, signed an affidavit claiming that Helmut Horten threatened him and the other Jewish owners with deportation to a concentration camp if they refused to sell to Horten.

Asked if it was fair to characterize the Horten fortune as “blood money,” professor Hoeres told Fine Art Globe, “You can’t say that, if only because Horten had lost a large part to the bombing, the currency reform and the loss of the eastern territories. In 1948 he began to build up a bigger department store group.”

Heirs to businesses that sold under duress have mostly had to watch with helpless anger as the Heidi Hortens of the world enjoy their riches and spend a portion of the proceeds on reputation rehabilitation. But perhaps that’s about to change.

Author David de Jong told Fine Art Globe, ‘Helmut Horten laid the foundation of his wealth during the Third Reich by acquiring Jewish-owned department stores far below the market value of these firms.’ (Photo: Joachim Gern)

In response to this week’s auction, a group formed by top DC patent lawyer Steven Lieberman and Rabbi Avi Weiss, the founder of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale and YCT Rabbinical School is looking for heirs to fortunes depleted by the actions of Mr. Horten.

Lieberman, a partner at Rothwell Figg, told Fine Art Globe, “This is tainted jewelry, acquired with a fortune that, according to the New York Times, seems to have been built by acquiring businesses from Jews at fire sale prices who had no option but to sell. The jewelry is blood jewelry, and we hope that there will be claims made against the Heidi Horten estate by the heirs of those whose business were extorted by Helmut Horten. Perhaps the jewelry itself will be recoverable in such suits since it was acquired with tainted funds.”

David de Jong wasn’t willing to go quite as far rhetorically in condemning the sale, but left no doubt about its problematic nature and added a nuance about forced labor. “The Horten jewelry and art collections weren’t acquired with ‘blood money’ per se,” the author told Fine Art Globe. “However, Helmut Horten laid the foundation of his wealth during the Third Reich by acquiring Jewish-owned department stores far below the market value of these firms and exploiting forced labor in Berlin during the Second World War. So the root of Helmut Horten’s fortune was built on extortion and steeped in blood.”

Lieberman and Weiss have teamed up and published an alert on Monday.

“Looking For Heirs of Looted Jewish Businesses to Explore Possible Claims Against the Estate Of Heidi Horten” read the headline of a PR blast issued on Monday. “That Christie’s would sell such jewelry is unconscionable,” read the release. “We urge any heirs of these looted Jewish businesses to contact us about possible claims against the estate of Heidi Horten.”

If a couple Jews vs the mighty house of Christie’s and its billionaire heiress seems like a lopsided match, consider the success of some on the smaller team. Lieberman won a crazy victory when he represented Kurt Eichenwald, the enigmatic investigative journalist (New York Times, Vanity Fair). Eichenwald is an epileptic who has written about his condition. After Eichenwald criticized President Trump in 2016, a Maryland white supremacist sent him epileptogenic flashing light GIFs via Twitter. “You deserve a seizure for your posts,” read the message, and Eichenwald indeed suffered a seizure. Lieberman represented Eichenwald (pro bono) in suing the sender and won a $100,000 judgement and all claims, including assault and battery.

If an animated GIF is worth a hundred grand, maybe some reparations are due the heirs of families forced from their livelihoods by a genocidal regime.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This story has been updated to include comments from Prof. Peter Hoeres. (May 3, 2023 at 8:30 am; May 10, 9:30 am)