A watercolor of life at Heart Mountain during the winter by Estelle Ishigo, 1943. (From the collection of Eaton)
A watercolor of life at the Heart Mountain, Wyo. camp during the winter by Estelle Peck Ishigo, 1943. (From the collection of Allen H. Eaton)

Rafu Staff Report

Japanese American community leaders are up in arms over the upcoming auction of about 450 artifacts from the World War II internment camps at an auction scheduled for April 17.

The auctioneer, Lambertville, N.J.-based Rago Arts and Auctions, is selling off artifacts from the collection of Allen H. Eaton (1878-1962), author of the 1952 book “Beauty Behind Barbed Wire” and the subject of a 2004 biography, “Allen H. Eaton: Dean of American Crafts” by David B. Van Dommelen.

A nameplate, ca. 1945, one of many up for auction. From the collection of Allen Eaton.
A nameplate, ca. 1945, one of many up for auction. (From the collection of Allen H. Eaton)

According to the biography’s publisher, “His work brought prominence and respect to handicraft produced by the people of Oregon, Southern Appalachia, New England, immigrants, the blind and even prisoners in Japanese American internment camps …

“His most ironic friendship, perhaps, was with Eleanor Roosevelt, who penned a foreword to one of his most controversial works, ‘Beauty Behind Barbed Wire,’ a celebration of crafts in the Japanese American internment camps (it was Franklin Roosevelt who signed the executive order creating the camps during World War II).”

New York Times antiques writer Eve M. Kahn writes, “The objects illustrate the resourcefulness of internees as they tried to preserve traditional artisanship and familiar habits. Cigarette boxes are made of string recycled from onion sacks. Wood carvings depict birds in flight. Plaques with family names were made to hang tar-paper homes.

“The highest prices, up to $1,200 apiece, are expected for oil paintings by Estelle Peck Ishigo (1899-1990), the white wife of a Japanese American aspiring actor, Arthur Ishigo. When Mr. Ishigo was sent to Heart Mountain Relocation Center in Wyoming, she joined him and documented how internees suffered and tried to adjust. The Rago lots include her scenes of children playing at riverbanks and hauling luggage between barracks.”

Chairs made from scrap wood, ca. 1945. (From the collection of Allen H. Eaton)
Chairs made from scrap wood, ca. 1945. (From the collection of Allen H. Eaton)

An online petition has been established on change.org by Lorna Fong, who is active with the Tule Lake Pilgrimage. The heading reads, “Japanese American History: Not for Sale.” The description is written by Dr. Satsuki Ina, professor emeritus at CSU Sacramento, a Tule Lake Pilgrimage board member, and producer of the documentaries “Children of the Camps” and “From a Silk Cocoon.”

“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,” wrote Ina, who was born at Tule Lake. “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.

“Eaton opposed the incarceration and this sale goes against his intent for a public exhibition that received official support …

“These items were not meant to be viewed in the privacy of a collector’s home … a price tag should not be put on our cultural property.”

The petition had more than 600 supporters as of Monday evening.

A “Japanese American History: Not for Sale” Facebook page has also been set up. The description reads, in part: “We want to halt the profiteering of our ancestors’ and families tragic incarceration … When [Eaton] visited the camps to collect examples, he wrote that people ‘offered to give me things to the point of embarrassment, but not to sell them…’

“Now these will be auctioned and dispersed into private collections, betraying the imprisoned donors and the collector’s intent … 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. Stop profiting off others’ tragedies.”

The Facebook page had more than 2,100 “likes” as of Monday evening.

“Shocked and Appalled”

Janice Mirikitani, former poet laureate of San Francisco, found a photo of her late cousin Jimmy in one of the lots. She wrote:

Certificate of attendance from a school at the Topaz, Utah camp, 1944. (From the collection of Allen H. Eaton)
Certificate of attendance from a school at the Topaz, Utah camp, 1944. (From the collection of Allen H. Eaton)

“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. I had the honor of participating in a documentary about his life and his art, ‘The Cats of Mirikitani,’ which respectfully revealed his journey of perseverance and dignity.

“To ‘pimp’ the suffering of my family, my community is not only insulting, it is inhumane. I was as an infant incarcerated in a camp in Rohwer, Arkansas, so I have my own personal journey witnessing the aftermath of the camps on my mother’s life.

“Do not commit this travesty of cheapening and ‘selling’ memories of cherished family members, and artwork which was created to survive the isolation and humiliation of the camp experience.”

Patti Hirahara, whose father and grandfather took thousands of photographs of daily life at Heart Mountain, commented, “In knowing that Japanese American people personally produced these items in Japanese relocation camps where they were incarcerated during WWII, it is very sad to see that this collection is not being donated to museums or educational institutions where the history of this time can be shared with future generations.

Hand-carved panels from the Amache camp in Colorado. (From the collection of Allen H. Eaton)
Hand-carved panels from the Amache camp in Colorado. (From the collection of Allen H. Eaton)

“The collector, Mr. Eaton, had intended for this collection not to be sold and I agree with his philosophy. I have taken the Hirahara family’s personal artifacts, documents, and photos and donated them to the Smithsonian, Washington State University, the Yakima Valley Museum in Yakima, Washington, and the City of Anaheim … to tell the Japanese incarceration story and to help open the door to allow other Japanese families to do the same.

“With people across this country just finding out about this auction through the ‘Japanese American History: Not for Sale’ Facebook page, Asian American media, by word of mouth and emails, the concerned parties should stop this auction sale on April 17 and consider another solution.”

“We denounce this auction, which re-ignites the anger, frustration and humiliation that our community, our families felt during the forced removal,” stated Manzanar Committee Co-Chair Bruce Embrey. “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 to opportunistic individuals seeking to profit from their misfortune; a misfortune forced upon them by an unjust, unconstitutional executive order.

“The economic losses were tremendous. The personal losses were almost impossible to quantify. This is the context of an auction of this nature.

“These artifacts are an expression of our families and friends struggling to make life tolerable during an intolerable situation … those who fashioned jewelry or crafts while in camp were resisting the humiliation and dehumanization of the incarceration.

“As the Ad Hoc Committee to Oppose the Sale of Japanese American Historical Artifacts points out, this is reminiscent of other auctions of belongings, whether they were relics from slavery, Native American cultural and religious artifacts, or items stolen during the Holocaust. The Manzanar Committee believes that important historical artifacts need to be preserved and made available to a wide audience in order to tell the stories of oppressed peoples rather than be used for profit or personal gain.

“We call on Rago Arts and Auctions to immediately halt the sale of any items related to the World War II incarceration of Japanese Americans, and to instead engage in dialogue with the Japanese American community on the disposition of the artifacts in question.

“To attempt to profit from these precious, historic artifacts is no different than those farmers, fishing companies and others who sought to profit by buying our families’ possessions for pennies on the dollar as they left for camp. It is a stark reminder that many in the United States have yet to fully understand or redress the wrongs Executive Order 9066 wrought upon the Japanese American community. This auction only adds insult to injury.”

Photo by Francis Stewart of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt visiting the Gila River camp in Arizona. (From the collection of Allen H. Eaton)
Photo by Francis Stewart of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt visiting the Gila River camp in Arizona. (From the collection of Allen H. Eaton)

“The drawings, paintings, photographs & crafts created by those of Japanese Ancestry imprisoned during World War II are not pieces of art meant to decorate a private collection,” said Rev. Bob Oshita, minister at Buddhist Church of Sacramento. “They are deep and quiet expressions of the hope and despair felt by a people enduring the trauma of racism, hatred and fear. What you are planning to sell should be part of our shared social conscience — and not viewed as simply art for display.

“We may not be able to stop profiteering on the suffering of others, but we must, at the very least, speak out against it. Please reconsider what you are doing.”

Rago’s Response

On April 10, the partners of Rago Arts and Auction Center posted the following response to the Facebook page:

“We have made our consigner aware of the outcry and upset that this auction is creating. We would like you to be aware of the facts of the matter. Rago has respectfully answered the emails directed to us, included emails to some who are active on this page.

“The consigner and his family inherited the Eaton estate with its multiple collections from the Eaton family. He is a client for whom we have sold other property from the collections and with whom we have a relationship. They have held this property for over three decades and have been approached by multiple institutions asking them to donate.

“They take the responsibility for these collections very seriously, but are not in a financial position to donate.

“The consigner did not feel comfortable choosing one institution over another nor qualified to do so. He didn’t want to leave the responsibility to his children. He felt that selling at auction was the best way to expose the property publicly to all. We agreed to handle this for him.

“It has been our hope from the start that all these pieces would find their way back either to families or to museums for display, research and education. We have made every effort to see that this happens by contacting museums and affinity groups and important media outlets such as The New York Times.

“Whether the sale continues as planned is ultimately the decision of our consigner. If this auction does proceed on April 17, it is an opportunity for multiple museums and institutions to secure this property and for private citizens who have the means, individually and collectively, to donate.

Repurposed wood letter box and two cigarette cases constructed from onion sack string, ca. 1945. (From the collection of Allen H. Eaton)
Repurposed wood letter box and two cigarette cases constructed from onion sack string, ca. 1945. (From the collection of Allen H. Eaton)

“There may still be a mutually agreeable solution to be found. We hope so.”

The rebuttal from the organizers of the Facebook page reads, in part: “Since the catalogue was posted online 10 days ago, people have found personal connections to items. For example, genealogical research on nameplates (Lots 1246 and 1247) that were hung on tar-paper barracks has found that many came from the Granada camp and that immediate descendants of these families are alive.

“If a beautifully carved nameplate belongs to a family that can be identified, should not that person or persons have the opportunity to know this and have, at the very least, the option of first refusal? To ask that family to compete with national and perhaps international bidders to reclaim their family’s material heritage, created under conditions for which the U.S. government apologized in 1988, is heartless and, in our view, not good enough. Please try to understand how humiliating it is for these families to participate in this auction …

“There is no time to research and explore the many questions this collection raises. Please slow down the process and remove these lots from your Great Estates auction. There are 450 camp items bundled into 24 lots in next week’s auction. That is 3 percent of the entire estate auction of 747 lots. Removing the Japanese American heritage property will not stop the rest of that day’s business from continuing and will show a sensitivity to how important these items are to our community.

“You say that your consigner is not in a financial capacity to donate … We emphasize that we do not have answers and we are not asking for a donation, just that you delay the sale so that more research and examination of these complex issues can be carried out.”

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