Following Public Pressure, eBay Has Cancelled a Sale of Wartime Drawings Reportedly Made by an Artist in a U.S. Japanese Internment Camp

A number of organizations wrote to the auction house saying they objected to "profiteering off the oppression of Japanese Americans."

A monument honoring the dead stands in the cemetery at Manzanar National Historic Site on December 9, 2015 near Independence, California. Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images.

The online auction website eBay has halted the sale of 20 sketches supposedly completed by an artist detained at the Manzanar Japanese internment camp in California during the Second World War. 

The last-minute decision came following public pressure from cultural groups and institutions such as the Japanese American National Museum and the Japanese American Citizens League. On Monday, the organizations sent a letter to eBay’s corporate leaders calling for a cancelation of the sale.

“We object to profiteering off the oppression of Japanese Americans,” they wrote in the letter, which was shared with Artnet News. “It is wrong to monetize people’s suffering and the works that they managed to make or save under harsh and humiliating conditions. By treating such objects as art to be sold and establishing a benchmark price, you encourage the perception that our history is just another commodity.” 

Meanwhile, a former art dealer, Bif Brigman, launched an online petition urging eBay to stop the auction. Over 1,000 people had signed the document as of press time.

Bidding for the sketches had reached $470 by the time the listing was withdrawn Tuesday, the last of the sale’s seven scheduled days. A spokesperson for eBay told Artnet that, after a review, the company determined the objects on offer “violated our artifacts policy, which prohibits the sale of items from government or protected land.”

“These drawings are from the Manzanar Internment Camp, which is a National Historic Site,” the representative clarified.

Depicting various landscapes, including Mount Fuji, the 20 sketches were completed between 1942 and 1943 and are each signed with the name Matsumura. The groups behind the letter to eBay suggest they could have been done by Giichi Matsumura, an artist who was imprisoned at the camp, but the attribution remains unconfirmed. 

Matsumura died in 1945, after being released from the camp, during a storm while sketching and painting in the Sierra Nevada mountains. His skeleton was discovered by a hiker in 2019.

Lori Matsumura, the artist’s granddaughter, found the sketches at auction earlier this week, noting that the signature bore similarities to Giichi’s own. She attempted to buy the sketches before they were pulled by eBay. “I feel I may never see those sketches again,” she told the Associated Press

David Inoue, executive director of the Japanese American Citizens League, said in an email to Artnet News that his organization hopes to help “reunite the artwork with the family pending contact from the seller and verification of connection.”

“Unfortunately, when many families left the concentration camps, they were unable to take all of the belongings they had accumulated through years of living in the camps,” he said. “The loss of property as they left was only outdone by the greater losses when they entered the camps, having been forced by the government to leave their homes and businesses and almost all their possessions behind.”

Follow Artnet News on Facebook:

Want to stay ahead of the art world? Subscribe to our newsletter to get the breaking news, eye-opening interviews, and incisive critical takes that drive the conversation forward.
  • Access the data behind the headlines with the artnet Price Database.
Article topics