Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Internment camp art will not be auctioned off; Japanese American protests works

Photo via Rago Arts & Auction Center
Watercolor by an unknown artist.
UPDATE: On Thursday, April 16, the auction house, Rago Arts and Auctions based in New Jersey, announced that they will remove the items made by internees of the Japanese American Detention Centers during WWII from their Auction of April 17.

"There is an essential discussion to be had about the sale of historical items that are a legacy of man's inhumanity to man. It extends beyond what is legal. It is something auction houses, galleries and dealers are faced with regularly," the auction house said. "We hope this controversy will be the beginning of a discourse on this issue.
A grass-roots campaign of a change.org petition, a Facebook page, and mediation by "Star Trek" actor George Takei has resulted in the auctioneer agreeing to pull about 400 artworks from the sale. Read more here.
THE SALE of artworks and crafts by Japanese Americans who were forcibly interned during World War II has the Japanese American community up in arms, comparing the auction house sale to a similar auction of Holocaust survivors' art, which was eventually cancelled because of protests from the Jewish community.

A report out of the Los Angeles-based Rafu Shimpo, a daily newspaper catering to the Japanese American community quoted Janice Mirikitani, former poet laureate of San Francisco. 
“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."
The artifacts were part of a collection of the late Allen H. Eaton, author of the 1952 book "Beauty Behind Barbed Wire." They are being sold by the auctioneer, Lambertville, N.J.-based Rago Arts and Auctions on behalf of the unnamed owner. The auction is slated for April 17.

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.”
A “Japanese American History: Not for Sale” Facebook page has also been established. 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 …’"

The auction house sent a reply to the Facebook page saying that the present owner of the collection is not in a financial position in which he can donate the items but it is the hope of the auctioneers that museums or other institutions can use the auction to acquire the artifacts for preservation and display.

An early offer from one Japanese American historical organization to purchase a portion of collection was rejected by the auction house even though the offer was beyond the actual value of the artifacts.

The sale 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,” states an online petition on Change.org. 


Toshi Abe, a board member of the Japanese American Citizens League and a spokesman for the group protesting the sale, told the New York Times that they seek to delay the auction. “We want time to really sort out what to do with this artwork,” he said.

From the  Eaton Colleciton
A watercolor of life at the Heart Mountain, Wyo. camp by Estelle Peck Ishigo, 1943.