Imagine this: boxes of family photos, wood carvings, landscape paintings, handmade jewelry, and other items that were once described as examples of how “artisans made tools and art supplies out of salvaged wallpaper, drainage pipes, lumber scraps, discarded saw blades, worn-down files, automobile springs and other waste metal.” These items are being put up for auction. A man three inheritance degrees removed from the man who was originally gifted these items by their makers knows they are historical and worth money. The items are of no interest to him; he has a family member in need and can make a profit off this collection that has been gathering dust for years. He says the auction house told him these are museum-quality items that will probably be bid on by institutions that can give them the proper setting they deserve. It did not occur to him that living survivors from the camps where these items originate might recognize their cousin in a photo, or a hand-carved hair comb their mother used to wear. When exactly that happens, the seller doesn’t see that those people may have more right to the items than he ever did, and indeed, more right to them than any paying museum. He suggests that if they want the items, they can bid on them like anyone else.
The Rago Arts & Auction Center sale was set to take place on April 17. It had been revealed earlier in the week that it would include artworks and personal belongings created by interned Japanese Americans during World War II. Because of social media outrage and a Change.org petition, the items were pulled from the sale — and two weeks later, the Japanese American National Museum announced its purchase of the collection. But the fact that they even came up for auction to begin with raises many questions about who has the “right” to art and artifacts, what should be available for sale versus what should be returned to its rightful owners, and how we ascertain who those “rightful” owners are. The situation highlights the difficult issue of ethics in art sales — a dilemma that has previously arisen around the sale of Native American and Iraqi art and artifacts, as well as Holocaust memorabilia, and yet apparently has not been satisfactorily settled. The ultimate question is: are we, as a society, going to accept that some people have a right to financial gain from the sale of the suffering and work of others?
Surely, one thinks, the international art world must have addressed these issues already and drawn up some sort of code of ethics or standards of practice around such situations. But that art world is multifaceted, and its most powerful brokers have little at stake in this game. There is the US-based Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), which addresses the finding and sale of Native American artifacts, for example, or the Washington Principles and Terezin Declaration, both international attempts to repatriate art stolen by the Nazis from Jewish families and sold to museums around the world. But while some standards exist, they have been difficult to enforce, and there are many ways around them. Often these protections are specific to certain communities and do not apply to others with similar struggles. In fact, Rago was not only following current US laws, but also the long-standing ethics of the art and auction world. The seller in this case seemed unaware of anything wrong with its plan because it is currently completely normal and acceptable to do what they set out to do. As Mia Nakaji Monnier wrote about the auction, in the Rafu Shimpo:
… as thoughtful as an auctioneer can be, they still, by necessity, see objects differently than the average person. For them, appraisal is about market value, not about emotional value … Human sympathy aside, auctions are predicated on the idea that market value has meaning, that there is some worth in assigning a price to a piece of artwork or a historical artifact and letting it go to the highest bidder. The boundaries of what is fit for auction depend on the house and on the individual piece, and it often takes controversy to shift them.
In the wake of this most recent controversy, the arts community has an opportunity to create a cultural shift that will change the way these situations are handled in the future. It is an opportunity to strengthen the existing protections, making them easier to uphold, and to provide new ones for marginalized communities currently uncovered by existing laws. But how did we get here? And what is so wrong about where we are? Some may quite sincerely ask: what is the problem?
Since time immemorial it has been a standard practice for conquerors to destroy or loot the cultural artifacts of the conquered people. In Mesopotamia and Ancient Egypt, this meant that the faces of the Lamassu and Sphinx were defaced, to dishonor the prior king or pharaoh represented. In places like India and China, it meant that items were hauled off to British museums; from Morocco and Vietnam, items made their way to France. To this day, art, jewels, and artifacts that were taken by colonial powers remain in the museums and homes of the wealthy, despite requests by former colonies to reclaim them. Art historians have taken a stance firmly on the side of the conquerors, servants to those in power and referring to our work as “preservation” and the saving of these items from destruction, loss, or other uses that we would deem inappropriate — in other words, uses that don’t serve the powerful and help to bring in tourist dollars. Art historians — many of whom are employed by auction houses like Rago — have an interest in retaining access to items that have been deemed valuable and interesting.
At the same time that powerful societies do not show much empathy or respect for conquered cultures, they also retain a strange fascination with and nostalgia for times gone by. This manifests in many different ways. One is the exotification and then commodification of those cultures while requiring their people to assimilate into the mainstream. Consider the fake Plains Indian headdresses that have become a fashion statement, and mainstream clothing retailers, like Coach, Forever 21, and Urban Outfitters, who market ‘tribal styles’ that use patterns from Indigenous tribal designs without actually employing any Indigenous people or supporting the work of Indigenous artisans. The mainstream fashion world not only doesn’t support or promote Indigenous artisans, but markets almost exclusively to a white clientele, and makes a profit doing so.
Speaking of the Pendleton blanket marketing of the early 1900s, Jessica Metcalfe, an Ojibwe with a PhD in Native American Studies and creator of the blog Beyond Buckskin, draws the connection between fashion and mainstream commercial use of Indigenous styles, patterns, and imagery and the collecting of art and artifacts by museums. In both cases, the work of Indigenous makers is co-opted, appropriated, and sometimes even forbidden to the people from whom it originates. While Indigenous people were forcibly assimilated into a “white” society, their beadwork, textiles, pottery, and more were carted off to museums that they couldn’t visit and that stripped them of ownership over their own work. Metcalfe explains:
This is at the height of the reservation era, when we were confined, we were essentially prisoners on these small plots of land. But in that same breath, while our cultures were under threat from this outside force, that’s when we turned internally to protect what we had, and we also get some of the most beautiful beadwork and most beautiful jewelry coming out of that period of great stress.
Connected with that great assimilation movement was the height of collecting. The late 1800s was when a lot of our stuff left our communities. On the one hand, you have this push for trying to absorb or get rid of ‘The Indian Problem.’ Then, they were taking all of the items that embody that culture, to collect them and put them in museums and claim ownership on them.
As Metcalfe mentions, another manifestation is the collecting of items — art, artifacts, clothing, etc. This may take place on an institutional level, as happened historically with the Metropolitan Musuem of Art and other encyclopedic museums, or it may be the work of individuals, as with Nazi memorabilia. Considering the horrors of what the Nazis believed, stood for, and did, it’s surprising that anyone would want to collect artifacts from them; however, when we consider them in relation to the conqueror vs. conquered narrative, we discover a parallel: in the same way that we appropriate the headdress of the conquered Plains tribes, we also appropriate the symbols of Nazi ideology, which we believe we have conquered. It is a fascination with subjugation and power, a constant reliving of our conquest.
The sale of Nazi memorabilia raises an obvious concern: how Jewish people feel when they encounter it. Gordon Hecker, president and chief executive of the Jewish Federation of Columbus, Ohio, says, “To think that anyone anywhere would be profiting off the immense tragedy that these people experienced is a travesty.” Hecker echoes the sentiments of other Jewish people, and because the horrors of the Holocaust are so clear and fresh in our minds, most of us feel empathy. But do we feel the same empathy when we see a pop-eyed Mammy or a cigar-store Indian in the antique shop? We may not recognize the connection between these different sides of the same coin. Whereas a segment of society will always see things based on the potential for profit, there must always be a larger segment that recognizes the humanity of the people affected and who will act as the conscience of civilization to stand against exploitation and appropriation.
The sale and collection of Nazi memorabilia may celebrate, in a weird way, our win against the atrocities of the Nazis, but we tend to remember that Jewish people still exist and shouldn’t have to see these symbols paraded around. We understand the value of using the symbols for educational purposes, and of allowing Jewish survivors and descendants to tell their own stories. International agreements have been made to research and return Jewish-owned art confiscated by the Nazis, although the efforts have been far less than satisfactory so far. As recently as last year, a report
recommended the creation of an international association of provenance researchers that would establish a rigorous, professional standard for tracking the ownership of art. The job of such an association, it said, would be “to remove the question of provenance research as much as possible from political concerns and to make it simply part of good, ethical, common museum practice.”
These standards could assist art institutions, art historians, and governments in creating a new code of ethics to address other, similar cases, since such recognitions don’t even exist for many groups. The argument of ‘educational value’ has long been a main point that art historians, museum management, and others hold sacred and claim as a reason for retaining items that colonized people have requested to be returned. I have personally lost count of the number of times in one semester that I’ve heard an art history professor exclaim how fortuitous it is that some great ancient art now resides in the Pergamon Museum in Germany or the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, where it is safe. With so much ideological destruction of antiquities by groups like the Islamic State and Al-Qaeda, and other losses due to modernization and natural disasters, it’s understandable that art historians view their role as urgent protectors and guardians of artifacts. But this still ignores the issue of who owns those artifacts and who gets to decide if and when they are disposed of or destroyed, protected or displayed. The Smithsonian is known for its Native American objects and displays. Despite the National Museum of the American Indian Act, those installations remain full of artifacts while court dates drag on and on. Many museums also have extensive collections of African, Asian, and Caribbean art from various societies, and there is little, if any, discussion of the right of those communities to reclaim it.
The US internment camps during World War II are rarely discussed in school. The focus of those conversations is almost exclusively the Nazis, the work and death camps of the Holocaust, and the intervention and success of the Allies in ending the war. It is not spoken loudly that the US had its own entrenched anti-Semitism and joined the war only belatedly, after the Pearl Harbor bombing. Both the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the rounding up of Japanese Americans stateside are not talked about in depth. Movies like Rhapsody in August (1991) have attempted to bring a Japanese perspective into the limelight, but have largely been ignored by mainstream audiences. Rhapsody tells the story of a survivor of the bombing of Nagasaki and how her life was impacted. To date, there is no popular mainstream movie addressing the internment camps explicitly. Many US citizens born after the war know little to nothing of this part of history.
Between February 1942 and March 1946, the US government forcibly relocated about 120,000 Japanese Americans living on the West Coast to a variety of internment camps. The majority were US citizens. Entire families were made to pack only essential belongings and lost their homes and businesses. The resilience with which they survived those camps is a testament to human spirit. Restitution payments were made to survivors in the late 1980s, which is more than most communities have ever received, but they don’t really compensate for the material losses, much less the attempted theft of these people’s humanity.
The collection that came up for auction at Rago was amassed by Allen Hendershot Eaton, an anti-internment activist, folk art expert, and author of Beauty Behind Barbed Wire, a book about artistic ingenuity in the camps. The majority of the over 400 items were gifts given to Eaton by interned Japanese American artisans, although some pieces he purchased. At the time of his death, Eaton willed the collection to his daughter, who in turn gifted several items to the father of John Ryan, the current owner. At the time of Eaton’s daughter’s death, she willed the remaining collection to Ryan’s father, and Ryan then inherited it upon his father’s death. Ryan is the legal owner of the collection and from what is known he has done nothing wrong in the way he obtained the items. He now finds his family in financial need and, having previously worked with Rago to successfully sell unwanted items, approached them to assist him in this case.
Ryan said he just wanted to do the right thing and didn’t feel qualified to determine the appropriate home for the collection. But betraying these claims was his refusal to accept an offer from Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation of nearly twice the quoted estimate — Heart Mountain oversees a museum on the site of one of the camps and educates the public about this often-neglected part of US history. Instead, Ryan attempted an auction, and when that fell through said he would proceed “with a plan to find a home for the photos and artifacts in a nonprofit museum or historical institution, and would conduct a formal request for proposals.” At that point it looked like Japanese American foundations and institutions would have to pay to return the items to their community, just as if it were an auction. Further outcry over this prompted the Japanese American National Museum to step in, and likely is part of why Ryan to agreed to the sale. The final price is undisclosed.
Under current law and standards of art market ethics, both Ryan and Rago are correct that allowing various parties to bid on the items is standard operating procedure. But if we look at the situation from the perspective of both art history and cultural value, we can see that breaking up the collection and selling it in pieces to the highest bidders may not be the best way to preserve it or to honor the community from which it comes. Also unaddressed is the question of whether Ryan should be making money off the collection at all, or why the collection is not being returned to descendants of the Japanese Americans who made the items and graciously gifted them to Eaton.
As art historians and representatives of art institutions, we need to look at this as an opportunity to come together and create a code of ethics for such situations. As Rago said itself, when it announced the cancelation of the auction:
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.
We too will be judged in the future for our failures today to protect art and artifacts and for contributing to an unjust system that prioritizes commercial greed over human empathy. While we may argue for the protection of art and artifacts, isn’t the safest place for them with the people who revere them? Sales to museums provide protection of artifacts but don’t always make them available for public education, as many institutions have more items in storage than on display at any given time. Obviously, private collections also do not benefit the public — Eaton’s trove has sat stored away in boxes for decades, while Japanese Americans have been unaware of their own legacy and not had access to items from their own families. Now is the time for the international arts community to build upon the progress already made to restore rightful ownership of art and historical works, and to create a more equitable system.