Heidi Göess-Horten, an Austrian department store heiress who just earlier this month opened a long-awaited private museum in Vienna, has died at 81. A representative for that museum, the Heidi Horten Collection, said that Göess-Horten died on Sunday in her home in Lake Wörthersee.
“A generous, warm-hearted and wise woman has passed away today,” the museum wrote in a statement. “She will be remembered for her manifold commitment, above all to the arts and to sports, especially as president of the KAC,” an Austrian hockey team.
Göess-Horten was not just one of the top collectors in Austria but in the world writ large. With 700 works in her holdings, she has ranked on the ARTnews Top 200 Collectors list each year since 2018. But it was not until recently that most were aware of the depth of her collection at all.
In 2018, a showing of her holdings went on view at the Leopold Museum in Vienna, featuring key paintings by Lucian Freud, Francis Bacon, Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Franz Marc, and more that had been amassed over the years. It was the first time the public had seen her collection, which had long been secreted away in her home. The Swiss publication Widewalls called the exhibition “breathtaking.”
“The kind of art, I am surrounded by and which I live with, has become available art history,” Göess-Horten wrote in the exhibition catalogue for the show. “Hence, my wish of sharing this experience with other people has grown steadily.”
At the beginning of this month, Göess-Horten opened the Heidi Horten Collection in Vienna. While the spare opening hang features some of the blue-chip artists that Göess-Horten has been collecting over the years, it is generally richer in Austrian artists, many of whom work in a conceptual mode. Among them are Philipp Timischl, Constantin Luser, Erwin Wurm, Markus Schinwald, and Brigitte Kowanz.
The Heidi Horten Collection said that, to commemorate its namesake’s passing, it would offer free admission for the next week starting on Monday.
Heidi Göess-Horten was born under the name Heidi Jelinek in 1941 in Vienna. In 1966, she married Helmut Horten, the magnate behind the German department store chain Horten AG. When he died in 1987, Göess-Horten inherited his fortune. She later married Jean-March Charmat in 1994, and she remarried one more time after that, to Karl Anton, the count of Göess, in 2013.
With Helmut Horten, Göess-Horten had begun collecting. Some years after his death, she began doing so more seriously. In 1996, her buying habits became public when she bought $22 million in art at a single Sotheby’s auction in London. Agnes Husslein-Arco, the Sotheby’s Vienna specialist who helped her purchase those works by phone, now directs the Heidi Horten Collection.
Göess-Horten was reportedly one of the the richest people in the world at the time of her death, with Forbes reporting her net worth to be $2.9 billion this year.
In addition to her art collection, Göess-Horten was reported to own one of the world’s largest motor yachts, the Carinthia VII, according to Boat International. The yacht was put up for sale this year with a $126 million price tag.
She did not only use her money to buy art and yachts, however. Austrian outlets have reported that Horten gave the ice hockey team KAC 3 million euros annually. The Stadthalle, the arena where KAC plays in Klagenfurt, Austria, is expected to bear her name when its renovation is complete.
Meanwhile, Göess-Horten was recently the subject of some controversy in Austria when Der Standard revealed that she had donated nearly €1 million to the conservative-leaning Austrian People’s Party between 2018 and 2019. (In Austria, significant donations from private entities to political parties are relatively uncommon, and must be publicly disclosed if they exceed a certain amount.) Those donations were made in small amounts so as to avoid having to report them. Her lawyer said the donations were legally compliant.
According to the data that Der Standard reported, Göess-Horten was by far the biggest donor to the party during that time period. After initially not responding to requests for comment, Göess-Horten told the German publication Süddeutsche Zeitung that her donations were “well-intentioned” but that she would no longer donate to any political party. She was never legally prosecuted for the donations, despite some politicians’ demands for her to be.
Up until the end, Göess-Horten continued buying art, and she viewed her collection as the core part of her legacy.
“I knew after the first public presentation of my collection that I wanted to preserve the works for posterity and share a treasure with people that has been with me in my private life for many years and given me such happiness,” she told ARTnews in an email last week.
“That’s why I see my museum as a place of discovery, of sensuous experience, of the joy of art—because that’s what art has been and still is for me: a vital source of joy!”