A collection of artifacts created by Japanese Americans locked up in internment camps during World War II will not be auctioned as planned on Friday, following widespread outcry.
Rago Arts and Auction Center of Lambertville, NJ, announced Wednesday that it is withdrawing the collection of artwork and crafts, as well as photos of Japanese-Americans incarcerated in the camps. The artifacts were gathered by folk art curator Allen H. Eaton, who visited internment camps in 1945 with hopes of staging a public exhibit. Instead, he published a book, “Beauty Behind Barbed Wire: The Arts of the Japanese in Our War Relocation Camps.”
Japanese American groups had rallied across the country to block the auction, saying the items were given to Eaton to be used to educate people about the injustice of the incarceration, not to be auctioned piecemeal to the highest bidder. The items range from carvings made of scrap wood to polished stones and watercolors, and are seen as a testament to the power of the human spirit amid deprivation.
On Wednesday, the auction house agreed to pull all 450 items from its Great Estates auction.
“We have always wanted to see this property where it could do the most good for history,” the company said in a statement to the media, emailed by managing partner Miriam Tucker. “For us, there could be no better resolution than for a suitable museum, foundation, or member/members of the Japanese American community with the means to preserve this collection to come forward and secure it for education, display and research.”
Actor and director George Takei has agreed to act as an intermediary between the auction house and Japanese American community institutions to determine the future of the items, according to the Facebook page, “Japanese American History: NOT for Sale,” which had helped mobilize the opposition.
Hawaii residents had added their voices to the protest, through a letter signed by the Honolulu chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League, social media and phone calls.
“Like everyone that was involved with this effort, we are very pleased with the outcome,” said
Jacce Mikulanec, president of the JACL chapter. “A good outcome can come when people step up to the plate and do the right thing.”
“I hope the art will be used in a way that will really educate the majority of our country,” he added.
“There are so many marginalized groups and minorities in our country… These are the moments that we have to reflect and learn. If we don’t constantly address these kinds of things, they can happen again.”
More than 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry were interned during the war, most of them American citizens, forced to abandon their homes and belongings and herded into remote camps. Among the items in the collection were wooden family name plates that internees carved to try to personalize the tar paper shacks where many were held.
Eaton, the collector, died in 1962. The auction house has not identified the client who put the collection up for bid. But it said he didn’t feel qualified to choose one institution over another and thought the auction would be the best way to make the property available to all.
“There is an essential discussion to be had about the sale of historical items that are a legacy of man’s inhumanity to man,” Rago Arts said in its press statement. “It extends beyond what is legal. It is something auction houses, galleries and dealers are faced with regularly. We hope this controversy will be the beginning of a discourse on this issue. “