“They offered to give me things to the point of embarrassment, but not to sell them,” Allen Hendershott Eaton wrote in Beauty Behind Barbed Wire: The Arts of the Japanese in Our War Relocation Camps (1952) of the artworks, furniture, and photographs gifted him by Japanese American internees. The historian was a vocal critic of the camps, and he wanted to curate an exhibition that would draw attention to them.
Eaton has since died, and in a strange twist, 450 items he collected from the victims are scheduled to be auctioned off by New Jersey-based Rago Arts on Friday. Objects in lots 1232–1255 of its “Great Estates” sale include beads, jewelry, hand-carved wooden objects, photographs, and paintings depicting camp life. These will soon go to the highest bidders, despite ongoing efforts by protesters to halt the sale.
Controversy first began stirring mid-March, when the Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation (HWMF), an organization that maintains the Heart Mountain internment camp, asked the anonymous consignor to consider either donating the items to Japanese American institutions or negotiating a private sale with nonprofit institutions. After the consignor rejected HWMF’s requests, the organization secured pledges from its board members to make a cash offer that exceeded the estimated auction value of the items. On April 13, the organization learned its proposal was rejected.
“Over the last several days, we have worked in good faith with the consignor through Rago to find a positive resolution that would end the auction,” HMWF Executive Director Brian Liesinger said in a statement on April 14. “The fact that we were met with rejection on all of our appeals — and the Japanese American community’s appeals — is baffling.”
“The idea of making these pieces of art, which symbolize incarcerees’ efforts to make something beautiful out of a miserable experience — making them available to the highest bidder re-opens old wounds,” said HMWF Chair Shirley Ann Higuchi, whose parents met at Heart Mountain.
In the meantime, as the New York Times reported, a Change.org petition was launched by Japanese American Lorna Fong to pressure Rago Arts to remove the items from the auction. In a letter addressed to David Rago, Dr. Satsuki Ina, born in California’s Tule Lake Segregation Center, wrote:
These items were given — not sold — to the original collector, Allen Eaton, because he wanted to display them in an exhibition that would help tell the story of the incarceration of 120,000 innocent people, more than half of them children. It is a betrayal of those imprisoned people who thought their gifts would be used to educate, not be sold to the highest bidder in a national auction, pitting families against museums against private collectors.
As of Wednesday morning, the petition had garnered 4,091 signers. Fong also set up a Facebook page called Japanese American History: NOT for Sale, which had 4,779 likes. “It is immoral and is causing our community anguish and outrage. Like Holocaust artifacts, slavery items and Native American burial objects, some historical artifacts must not be monetized,” she wrote. “Stop profiting off others’ tragedies.”
Reading through comments on the page reveals how, since the auction’s announcement, Japanese American internees and their descendants have found their family members’ photographs in the lots. Former San Francisco poet laureate Janice Mirikitani, incarcerated in an Arkansas camp as an infant, discovered a portrait of her cousin:
I was shocked and appalled, to say the least, in seeing my cousin Jimmy Tsutomu Mirikitani’s photo up for sale in an auction … Jimmy has endured more adversity than most human beings could imagine, not only with the injustice of our incarceration in American concentration camps, but also his struggle for validation as an American citizen. He was homeless for years in the streets of New York, living off of the sale of his artwork … To ‘pimp’ the suffering of my family, my community is not only insulting, it is inhumane.
I was astonished to see my late mother’s image being auctioned …. Before World War II, [she] was an accomplished violinist, a beauty pageant princess and a music major at the University of Washington in Seattle … the FBI arrested my grandfather for no crime and incarcerated him in Montana and North Dakota …. My uncle Andy …. was imprisoned and became the subject of Dr. Mengele-style medical experimentation. My mother’s family was exiled from Seattle. The government used this young woman’s smiling likeness to mask the tragedy suffered by her and an entire racial group of innocent people. Each item donated to the collector and offered by the consignor was a product of that injustice. To profit from these items is a second injustice.
In a statement released by the Manzanar Committee, which hosts a yearly pilgrimage to California’s Manzanar internment camp, co-chair Bruce Embrey explained that many families parted with their possessions for economic reasons. “With no time to store property or family treasures, and ordered to bring only what they could carry, our families had little choice but to destroy or sell personal belongings,” he said. “The economic losses were tremendous. The personal losses were almost impossible to quantify. This is the context of an auction of this nature.”
“We are in receipt of many emails, social media posts and the focus of much media attention. We are well aware,” Rago Arts told Hyperallergic. “Some people are supportive. Most are not. Of those objecting to the sale, all are heartfelt. Some are civil and constructive. Some are vile.”
They added, “There is an essential discussion to be had about the sale of historical items that are a legacy of man’s inhumanity to man. It extends beyond what is legal.”
Rago Arts also told the New York Times that the consignor, a friend of the Eaton family, is “not in a financial position” to donate the materials. The consignor also complained about the “social media attack” meant to “bully us into compliance with their demands.”
In contrast, Eric L. Muller, a historian and consultant on the auction catalog, canceled a lecture at the auction house scheduled for today. He told the newspaper that, based on the consignor’s response, “I did not feel that I could deliver a public lecture connected to the sale in good conscience.”
Update, 10pm EDT: Rago Arts and Auction Center has announced it will withdraw Eaton’s collection from the April 17 sale. In an email addressed to the media, the organization wrote:
We have always wanted to see this property where it could do the most good for history. We have done our best to publicize this auction by informing the media; The New York Times ran the first story about the sale on March 6. We relayed every good faith offer for private sale to the consignor. For us, there could be no better resolution than for a suitable museum, foundation or member/members of the Japanese American community with the means to preserve this collection to come forward and secure it for education, display and research.
There is an essential discussion to be had about the sale of historical items that are a legacy of man’s inhumanity to man. It extends beyond what is legal. It is something auction houses, galleries and dealers are faced with regularly. We hope this controversy will be the beginning of a discourse on this issue.
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