A painting by Estelle Peck Ishigo from the collection of Allen H. Eaton. "Disloyal" Japanese Americans leave Heart Mountain, Wyo. for Tule Lake Segregation Center in California on Sept. 21, 1943.
A painting by Estelle Peck Ishigo from the collection of Allen H. Eaton. “Disloyal” Japanese Americans leave Heart Mountain, Wyo. for Tule Lake Segregation Center in California on Sept. 21, 1943.

Rafu Wire and Staff Reports

Protests by Japanese American groups have led an East Coast auction house to cancel a sale of 450 photos and artifacts from World War II internment camps.

The move comes after thousands of Japanese Americans, advocacy groups and supporters posted their opposition to the sale on social media and the auction house’s Facebook page.

A change.org petition titled “Japanese American History: NOT for Sale” collected more than 7,600 signatures. A Facebook page with the same title had more than 6,500 “likes.”

An update on change.org reads, “Thanks to the combined community elements — the threat of a lawsuit, the help of our most famous Japanese American, George Takei, and the united voices of thousands of Japanese American individuals and supporters who expressed outrage and signed this petition, posted to Facebook and tweeted out messages, and the media attention, we achieved our goal — the Japanese American lots were pulled from the Rago auction block, thus delaying sale of the Eaton collection and giving us time to explore alternatives.

“Your advocacy helped reclaim our own story and make this is a proud moment for us all. Please sign this petition to support good-faith negotiations to occur for the future of the Eaton collection.”

“We know what the internment camps were,” Rago Arts and Auction Center founding partner David Rago said Thursday. “We know that it was a disgraceful period in American history, but we did not understand the continued emotional impact embodied within the material. We just didn’t get it.”

The collection includes artifacts and hundreds photos of people of Japanese descent who were imprisoned over fears they were spies. It also contains dozens of arts and crafts they made. Roughly 120,000 Japanese Americans were incarcerated at 10 relocation camps after the Dec. 7, 1941, bombing of Pearl Harbor by Japan.

The New Jersey auction house has declined to identify the owner of the collection, which internees gave to historian Allen H. Eaton while he was researching his 1952 book, “Beauty Behind Barbed Wire: The Arts of the Japanese in Our War Relocation Camps.” Eaton’s daughter sold the lot to the unnamed consigner.

Last fall, the consigner came to the auction house to enlist help in finding the most appropriate home for the collection, Rago said, adding that he didn’t realize there would be such a backlash.

“We were taken by surprise. We didn’t want to trouble anybody. It’s not good personally, it’s not good on any level,” he said.

Rago said the auction house will now try to find the “appropriate repository” for the items.

“There are many that are interested,” he said, but declined to elaborate.

Democratic Rep. Mike Honda of San Jose, who was interned in Amache, Colo., as a child, says the auction house made the right move.

“These artifacts reflect personal family memories of one of the darkest periods in U.S. history,” he told The San Jose Mercury News. “These items belong with the families, or in museums so future generations can learn from them.”

Rago said he can’t put a value on the lot but said it’s worth more than $25,000.

“In some respects,” he said, “the material is priceless.”

The Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation, which had offered to buy the collection, issued the following statement on April 15.


The Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation (HMWF) is pleased to report the withdrawal of the Japanese American incarceration items from the Allen Eaton collection, which were slated for public auction Friday, April 17, 2015, in Lambertville, New Jersey.

Within hours after legal counsel for the HMWF communicated their intent to file a lawsuit, the Rago Arts and Auction Center announced that the auction items would be withdrawn.

“The foundation and the many people who have supported us in the last few weeks are thrilled that the immediate risk to the collection has been averted, and we are appreciative of the wider Japanese American community’s concerns,” said HMWF Chair Shirley Ann Higuchi. “We now turn to the challenge of securing the future care of the collection and protecting it in collaboration with all concerned Japanese American-related institutions.”

The foundation’s effort began in late March with requests for alternatives to a public auction. The HMWF first asked for the donation of the items, then for the private sale of the items to appropriate non-profit organizations, and finally, for a postponement of the auction.

When these suggestions bore no fruit, the HWMF secured pledges from its board members and friends to make a substantial cash offer — one that far exceeded the estimated auction value of all the incarceration-related items. [The amount was $50,000 from nine personal pledges.]

When even this offer was not accepted, the HMWF felt compelled to continue the effort through legal means. A number of supporters rallied around the effort, with several Japanese American-related organizations submitting letters and messages of support over the last few days.

“I am heartened by the solidarity shown among the Japanese American community to bring this issue to light,” said HMWF Executive Director Brian Liesinger. “It spurred us on in our effort to do right by the collection and the incarcerees who created the artworks.”

The HMWF enlisted the New Jersey firm Lite DePalma Greenberg to handle the case. The law firm had this to say about the result: “We’re very pleased that our legal efforts on behalf of the Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation led directly to the withdrawal of these unique and culturally valuable artifacts from auction. We hope that the consigner of these items accepts the foundation’s previous offer to purchase the artifacts for more than their fair market value, so that they can be preserved and displayed for the public to see and learn from, as intended by Allen H. Eaton and the Japanese incarcerees.”

The items had been passed down to Eaton’s heirs after his passing and eventually ended up in the hands of a family friend, who decided to send it to auction. Eaton accumulated the collection toward the close of the World War II Japanese American confinement camps with the help of incarcerees. In 1952, he published the book “Beauty Behind Barbed Wire,” which featured many of the items planned for the public auction.

“As a former incarceree, I am very proud of the role that the HMWF took in bringing about the cancellation of the auction of these precious items,” said HMWF board member Sam Mihara.

The HMWF is intent upon continuing its efforts to secure these items and assure their proper stewardship. We hope the owners of the collection will be open to our good faith willingness to provide generous and fair compensation in order to bring the collection back to the Japanese American community.

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Actor and activist Takei, who was interned at Rohwer, Ark., and Tule Lake in Northern California as a child, got involved in the controversy by contacting the auction house.

“Following an afternoon of calls, I am very pleased that Rago Auctions, which was set to sell off artwork of Japanese American internment camp survivors, has announced it will withdraw the art pieces that were for sale,” Takei wrote in a Facebook post on April 15. “Rago and I will sit down with interested Japanese American institutions and parties to ensure that the collection will find a home where the pieces will be properly cared for and curated.

“These irreplaceable works represent the struggles and indomitable spirit of our community against a great injustice. They are shining symbols from a dark time — a chapter that we must never repeat, and never forget. Now, we can ensure that these pieces are not lost to history.

“Thanks to the many who added their voices to ensure this artwork was not sold off piecemeal to private buyers, but rather will be appreciated by generations to come.”

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