UPDATE: CNN reported Thursday, April 16, 2015 that Rago auction house “has removed items from its April 17 event after an uproar from the public. … A grass-roots campaign of a change.org petition, a Facebook page, and mediation by ‘Star Trek’ actor George Takei has resulted in Rago Arts and Auction Center agreeing to pull the items from the sale.”
Two weeks ago, Barbara Takei clicked on an Internet auction site and found her mother-in-law for sale.
Sitting at her computer in Sacramento, Barbara had first read about the auction of “art of the Japanese internment” in a March 5, 2015 article published in the New York Times.
The early 1940s photograph of Sakiko Shiga was grouped in Lot 1252, one of 63 black-and-white images valued at a starting estimate of $800-$1,200.
The auction, which will be held April 17 at the Rago auction house in New Jersey and online, will sell about 450 items related to the World War II incarceration of 120,000 Japanese Americans, more than half of whom were children. Seventy percent were citizens.
At the time, immigrant Japanese, most of whom had lived in the United States for 40 years, were ineligible for citizenship due to their race, a wrong that was not corrected until 1952.
The estate sale objects range from delicate pins made of shells, a handmade chair built from found lumber, and nameplates for the hastily-built barracks that imprisoned innocent people in unpartitioned spaces that had no running water and only a naked light bulb for light.
So the photo of Sakiko Shiga is not just a photograph. That smiling visage was part of a government propaganda campaign used to mask the tragedy that she and an entire racial group suffered. As Sakiko cooperated with the WRA photographer, her once proud and dignified father suffered failing health while interned as a “enemy alien” in Missoula, MT, and Bismarck, ND, and her pacifist brother Andy was imprisoned as a Conscientious Objector and subjected to Dr. Mengele-style medical experimentation. That photo represents the government’s exile and destruction of her family.
For Barbara, that photograph evokes memories of deeply personal family tragedies.
“When I saw the photograph I resisted the impulse to retrieve it,” she said. “It felt like a ransom demand—that I needed to prevent this item, tainted with such painful memories, from being placed on the auction block and offered to the highest bidder.” But she doesn’t believe that her family’s misery should be made into a commodity, she said, and will not bid.
The controversy over whether particular categories of artwork and cultural property—indigenous art, slave artifacts, Holocaust objects—should be up for sale is not new. Nor is it clearly illegal in all cases, although challenges have been mounted.
But many agree that the sale of items that gain their value from others’ suffering is immoral. How were these objects obtained? Do objects that have a tragic origin or which were expropriated from powerless groups belong in the common traffic of commodities?
In the case of the Rago auction, many items were given to the original collector, Allen Eaton, who was deeply opposed to the mass, unconstitutional incarceration of Japanese Americans. He was a respected champion of immigrant art and an expert on crafts. He thought he could do his part by showing the “beauty behind barbed wire” that was being made both to comfort the Japanese American prisoners and publicize the injustice that was being done.
Inmates were making functional and decorative objects from lumber scraps, painting watercolors on discarded paper and crafting tiny painted birds using metal threads left over from screen door repairs. It sprang from a desire to constructively and creatively channel anger and depression over property lost, families broken up, and the shame of being herded into remote barbed-wire encampments in rural Arkansas, Idaho, Utah, Wyoming, Colorado, Arizona, and California.
Families had been taken by the train load in groups of 500 to far-off destinations whose names they were not told, many wearing their Sunday best because it was the only way to preserve a shred of dignity. Individuals were tagged and took only what they could carry. Not a single act of sabotage or illegal spy activity was ever found.
Upon learning that he could not obtain photographs of the artworks from Japanese American inmates because they were not allowed to possess cameras (recording devices were considered a tool of potential sabotage), Eaton personally visited five camps and dispatched assistants to four others in 1945. He had to hurry; the camps were beginning to close and one already had been shuttered.
He wrote in his book, published in 1952, Beauty Behind Barbed Wire: “It was my intention, at the time of going into the field, to purchase a number of objects for an exhibition which I hoped could be circulated throughout the country; but I found that few of the craftsmen had any thought of selling the things they had made; they were saving them as ‘going away gifts,’ or to send to friends outside of camp, or just to keep in the family. They offered to give me things to the point of embarrassment, but not to sell them.”
That many of the items now being readied for sale were originally given to Eaton in good faith, for public display to educate, and not to be sold for future profit, particularly stings. “I feel like people are making a buck off our people’s history,” said Chizu Omori, age 84, whose parents, grandparents and other relatives were confined against their will at the Poston, AZ camp, for three years. She was only 12 years old.
For her and many others, this auctioning of community heritage represents an extreme form of capitalism but it also stirs in her a homegrown spirit of American protest. A Facebook page called Japanese American History Not For Sale was launched last week, seven days before the scheduled sale, by an ad hoc group in the S.F. Bay Area. Camp survivors and descendants wanted to publicize the auction and express opposition to the auction.
Yet an initial feeling of revulsion or anger about the auction is complicated by that which isn’t known about it.
The provenance of many items is unclear. The circumstances of the trajectory from Eaton to the present consigner, is unknown. Were some of the paintings purchased by Eaton and therefore a legitimate auction item? Should items made for personal use by imprisoned people be off limits for commercial gain?
Omori, Takei, and supporters across the country are calling on the auction house to delay the sale of these precious items and meet with curators, legal experts, and community institutions to help find a way to examine these crafts and artworks which were made by people wrongly imprisoned by their own government. The collection should reside in a public space where Allen Eaton wanted them.
Reverend Bob Oshita of Sacramento implores the Rago auction house: “What you are planning to sell should be part of our shared social conscience … and not viewed as simply art for display. Please reconsider what you are doing.”
Let the souls of our departed ancestors rest.