By Menachem Wecker
The Tel Aviv Museum of Art, a nearly 100-year-old institution that hosted the 1948 signing of Israel’s Declaration of Independence, has come under fire in recent months from Holocaust survivors for its decision to co-host an event with Christie’s.
The world’s largest auction house is organizing a series of events this year titled “Reflecting on Restitution.” The programs mark the 25th anniversary of the agreement that emerged from the 1998 Washington Conference on Holocaust Era Assets, a joint US State Dept. and Holocaust Memorial Museum program.
But Christie’s drew controversy for a recent sale of jewels that belonged to Heidi Horten, widow of the billionaire Helmut Horten, who made his money in part taking over former Jewish businesses during WW 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 last month.
On July 2, Tania Coen-Uzzielli, director of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, told JNS that the museum was pulling the plug on the event.
The museum’s management and board of directors stated, “The Tel Aviv Museum is open to criticism and sensitive to public opinion and therefore decided not to hold the conference: ‘Reflections on restitution’ in partnership with Christie’s auction house in December 2023,” Coen-Uzzielli said.
The statement appeared to misstate the name of the Christie’s series, which is “Reflecting on Restitution” and which continues at press time to list the museum as host of an event in “late winter 2023.”
“It is important to note that the museum has a longstanding professional relationship with Christie’s and that the conference had been planned long before the Heidi Horten sale took place,” Coen-Uzzielli said.
“The conference was to address and highlight for discussion important topics relating to art seizure and restitution. The conference would have brought together international and local Holocaust survivor’s families, historians, legal professionals and researchers from various disciplines,” she added.
“We respect the Tel Aviv Museum of Art’s decision,” Edward Lewine, vice president of communications at Christie’s, said, in response to several questions.
“Our Reflecting on Restitution program has been planned over years to mark the 25th anniversary of the Washington Principles, and we believe deeply in its goal of bringing together historians, researchers, scholars, legal experts, families, artists and others to share stories, ideas and perspectives,” Lewine added.
David Schaecter, president of the Holocaust Survivors Foundation USA, stated that the foundation is “relieved” that the Tel Aviv museum withdrew from the event.
“Let the Tel Aviv Museum’s commendable decision signal the end to this damnable practice among governments, institutions and people who are willing to participate in whitewashing Holocaust perpetrators, collaborators and profiteers for power, money and prestige,” he stated.
Schaecter added that the foundation sought to educate Christie’s leadership “to take a stand against glorifying the shameful history of Helmut Horten’s participation and profit from Nazi crimes against the Jewish people.”
“Christie’s refused, and bought in to the narrative, which we’ve seen over and over, that the passage of time and the ‘charitable purposes’ of the ex-Nazi’s foundation, made it OK for Christies’ to hold the sale,” he added. “This episode should send a clear message to all auction houses, museums and private collectors that every collection, and every sale, will be scrutinized. The passage of time cannot be allowed to sanitize the Nazis’ crimes against the Jewish people.”