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Top jewelry pieces fall short of target prices at Christie’s auction derided by Jewish groups

GENEVA — A ruby ring and a diamond necklace fetched less than their pre-sale estimates at a Christie’s auction Wednesday of a vast jewelry collection of a late Austrian heiress that was bought with riches from a retail empire dating back to the Nazi era in Germany. Jewish groups criticized the auction.

The auction house defended the sale of some 700 pieces of jewelry. saying proceeds are going to charitable causes, including a Vienna art museum and medical research. The collection belonged to Heidi Horten, whose German husband built a retail empire starting in the 1930s. She died last year.

Advocacy groups defending the rights of Holocaust survivors and victims had urged Christie’s not to go through with the sale.

The nearly 26-carat “Sunrise Ruby” — which Horten bought for the equivalent of about $30 million in 2015 — went Wednesday for just over 13 million Swiss francs (about $14.6 million), including fees and the “buyer’s premium.” The pre-sale estimate was for it to fetch 14 million to 18 million francs.

Earlier, the 90-carat “Briolette of India” diamond — the centerpiece of a necklace adorned with smaller diamonds — sold for 6.3 million francs including fees. Its pre-sale estimate range had been for 9 million to 14 million francs.

The buyers of the two star items were not immediately identified.

Overall, Christie’s said the sale on Wednesday — the first in-person portion of an auction that already had been taking place online this month — tallied $156 million, above the low estimate to reap $139 million in the day’s event.

The sale has featured sapphires, emeralds, pearls, diamonds and much more.

A final phase is set for Friday, but the top lots were up for bid Wednesday.

The auction has brought controversy.

Christie’s rejected calls from some Jewish groups for the sale to be withdrawn. It acknowledged that Heidi Horten drew a “significant inheritance” from her husband, Helmut Horten, who died in 1987. He had purchased Jewish businesses “sold under duress” during the Nazi era to build a retail empire. Christie’s said his actions had been “well documented.”

Tens of thousands of Jewish-owned retail stores were “aryanized” under the Nazis, and values of Jewish holdings were depressed by boycott measures, propaganda attacks, and other pressures from the authorities in the 1930s in Germany. Many Jews received no compensation.

Business people like Horten could take advantage. He built most of his wealth after the war, but his department store brand was born in the Nazi period.

Christie’s said all the jewelry was purchased over more than 50 years, starting in the early 1970s, more than a quarter-century after the Nazis were driven from power at the end of World War II. The auction house said it took on the collection on the understanding that all of the proceeds would go to charitable causes.

David Schaecter, president of the Holocaust Survivors Foundation USA, said the group had noted Christie’s explanation, but said it “unquestionably trivializes the Holocaust to justify using money brutally extracted from the Jewish people under barbaric conditions — conditions people today barely understand — in order to support the profiteer’s chosen ‘charitable purposes.’”

“Mr. Horten’s fortune cannot be divorced from the murder of six million Jewish people, including one and a half million children,” Schaecter said in a statement emailed by the group’s lawyer. “In my opinion, anyone who buys this jewelry will be wearing the blood of the Jewish victims of the Shoah around their necks or on their hands forever.”

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