Auction of Internment Camp Art Sparks Widespread Outrage
Japanese Americans resent seeing their families’ past up for sales.
An auction of artifacts crafted by Japanese Americans imprisoned in World War II internment camps has provoked widespread outrage, the New York Times’ Arts Beat reports.
The New Jersey auction house Rago plans to auction not only objects made at the camps—such as ornate family nameplates carved in wood attached to the barracks—but also photographs of internees.
Between 110,000 and 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry were incarcerated in camps during the Second World War, the majority of them U.S. citizens.
Some 450 pieces are slated to be auctioned on Friday. They come from a collection assembled by Allen Hendershott Eaton, a crafts historian who analyzed it in his 1952 book Beauty Behind Barbed Wire: The Arts of the Japanese in Our War Relocation Camps.
The book describes the internees’ resourcefulness and attempts to preserve traditions using salvaged materials, despite their desolate situation.
The family of the auction’s unnamed consignor acquired the collection from Eaton’s descendant. The original intention was for it to be dedicated to a museum.
Arts Beat reports that a spokeswoman for Rago alleged in an email that the consignor was “not in a financial position” to donate the material to institutions, and “did not feel qualified to choose one institution over another.”
In an email to artnet News, Miriam Tucker of Rago sent a statement of the company’s position, which includes the following: “There could be no better resolution here than for a member/members of the Japanese American community with the means to secure this property to come forward, purchase the collection at auction and find it a worthy home.”
Japanese Americans protesting the sale argue that postponing the auction would allow for research into a better solution for the items, which should be kept together. “We want time to really sort out what to do with this artwork,” said Toshi Abe, a board member of the Japanese American Citizens League and a spokesman for the group.
In a petition launched on Change.org the auction is referred to as “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.”
A Facebook page for the cause, called “Japanese American History Not For Sale,” has been posting photographs from the auction’s catalogue, in which former internees and their descendants have recognized themselves or their own relatives.
The poet Janice Mirikitani, for example, found a picture of her cousin Jimmy Tsutomu Mirikitani in a lot of 63 photos expected to fetch between $800 and $1,200. “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,” she wrote in a Facebook comment.
The consignor, on the other hand, has described the protests as a “social media attack” from the descendants, meant to “bully us into compliance with their demands.”
Another auction related to World War II sparked outrage recently, and was subsequently withdrawn (see Auction House Withdraws Terrible Hitler Flower Painting).
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.