Paintings of camp life at Heart Mountain by the late Estelle Ishigo are part of the Eaton collection.
Paintings of camp life at Heart Mountain by the late Estelle Ishigo are part of the Eaton collection.

POWELL, Wyo. — The Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation has issued statements responding to the recent acquisition of the Allen H. Eaton collection by the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles, which was announced on May 2.

The news that the Rago Arts and Auction Center was planning to sell off artifacts made by Japanese American internees during World War II — collected by the late Allen Eaton, author of “Beauty Behind Barbed Wire” — prompted protests from the community and allegations that the seller was trying to profit from symbols of a dark time in American history. The items were withdrawn from the auction block in the hope that they would be acquired by a Japanese American institution and put on public display.

HMWF Vice-Chair Douglas Nelson: “We are relieved that both the auction and the subsequent proposed competitive proposal process have now been definitively averted, and that a private sale with the Japanese American National Museum has been formally concluded.

“This was the very path that the Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation recommended to the Rago Arts and Auction Center early in our effort to avoid the public auction, and though they rejected it when we made our proposal, I am very glad they were ultimately moved to proceed in this direction.

“It is an important victory for the Japanese American community and for justice. Many people have reason to be proud of their role in this positive outcome, and I am personally very proud of the part Heart Mountain played in this struggle.

“All that said, however, I cannot help but confess to some disappointments at how this process has unfolded during the last 48 hours.

“I am, for example, disappointed that JANM did not give HMWF Chair Shirley Ann Higuchi, Executive Director Brian Liesinger or myself (a member of the JANM Board of Governors) any advance notice of their acquisition. I learned it second-hand from a friend who forwarded me the press release a few hours after the sale was publicly announced at JANM’s gala.

“I am also a little disappointed by JANM’s press statement announcing its successful acquisition as well. It includes not a word of recognition of the individuals and groups, including us, who worked as hard as we could, and at considerable cost, to oppose the private sale of these items to the highest bidders.

“Nor did their initial statement include a word of thanks for the support that the HMWF and others extended to JANM’s acquisition effort — support that came from us as soon as it appeared that JANM was more likely to be an acceptable buyer from the seller’s perspective than we were.

“I am most concerned that the JANM press statement said nothing about convening, consulting, collaborating, or planning with any of the other key Japanese American institutions, families and groups, including us, who have a powerful stake in and claim to many of the items in the collection, about where and how those items should ultimately be placed, cared for, exhibited and shared.

“This commitment to collaborative planning on the handling of these items had been a constant hallmark of the HMWF’s entire campaign to buy this collection, and it was one of the reasons that dozens of leaders and organizations, including JANM, expressed strong support for our efforts.

“Of course, I am an optimist and I respect JANM. I am hopeful that in the days ahead, with the collection safely secured, JANM will find prominent ways both to honor all those whose voices and actions made their acquisition of the collection possible, as well as to publicly commit to an inclusive process that will assure that the art and artifacts in the collection will transpire in those places where they can most powerfully pay homage to the lives, talent and struggles of the men and women who created them.

“I eagerly await those actions from JANM.”

HMWF Chair Shirley Ann Higuchi: “The Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation was instrumental in forcing the cancellation of the public auction and with that, it brings a positive end to an unfortunate episode. Let us hope that the Japanese American stakeholders that are still invested in this issue can work with the Japanese American National Museum to achieve what is in the best interest of the Japanese American community as a whole.”

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  1. Exactly!

    Thank you Heart Mountain Foundation, the AdHoc Committee, Lorna Fong’s petition and the Japanese American History NOT for sale Facebook page for their incredible leadership and their active, vocal and visible presence throughout.