Tel Aviv museum cancels art restitution conference with Christie’s over $202m auction linked to Nazi fortune

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The Tel Aviv Museum of Art has called off an event with Christie’s focused on art looted by Nazis during the Second World War after outcry over the auction house’s recent sale of jewellery that once belonged to the wife of a German businessman who profited from Jews fleeing Nazi persecution.

The Tel Aviv Museum of Art told Israeli newspaper Israel Hayom this week it cancelled a conference with Christie’s scheduled for December 2023 after backlash, saying the institution was “attentive to criticism and committed to public sensitivity”.

Christie’s has come under fire in recent months after the auction house announced the sale of late art collector Heidi Horten’s jewellery collection, which was estimated to bring in a nine-figure sum and eclipse actress Elizabeth Taylor’s $116m record for the most expensive collection of jewellery ever sold at auction. Horten inherited nearly $1bn after the death of her first husband, Helmut Horten, who made a fortune in retail in part by taking over Jewish department stores for sometimes below-market prices during the “Aryanisation” of Germany, when Jews’ property was seized and handed over to non-Jews. Christie’s went ahead with the sales despite outcry from Jewish groups, and Horten’s collection fetched a record $202m over two sales earlier this year. Horten died last year, aged 81.

The planned Tel Aviv Museum of Art event was part of a year-long initiative by Christie’s to mark the 25th anniversary of the Washington Principles, a set of international guidelines that help determine the restitution of artwork looted by Nazis during the Second World War. The conference had been planned before the announcement of the Horten sale and the ensuing uproar, according to the museum.

Last week, the Holocaust Survivors Foundation USA sent a letter to the US-based fundraising organisation Tel Aviv Museum of Art American Friends calling for the Christie’s event to be cancelled because it would serve as a platform for “Holocaust profiteers to justify their plunder and marginalise Holocaust survivors around the world”, according to the Jerusalem Post. Critics also raised concerns about conflicts of interest regarding Christie’s chairman for the Americas Marc Porter, who is also a board member of the Tel Aviv Museum’s American Friends group.

Christie’s did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The auction house previously said that it would make “a significant contribution” from the Horten collection sales to organisations focused on Holocaust research and education. Israel’s official Holocaust memorial, Yad Vashem, reportedly declined a donation from Christie’s because of the source of the funds, according to the Jerusalem Post.

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