Art From Japanese-American Internment Camps Saved From Auction Block
A collection of art and others artifacts related to the Japanese-American internment camps of World War II will not be sold to the highest bidder.
A New Jersey auction house was set to sell more than 400 items on Friday. But Rago Arts and Auction Center decided to withdraw the items on Wednesday after protests from descendants of internees who were wrongfully imprisoned by the U.S. government during the war.
Japanese-American families had donated many of the pieces to Allen Eaton, an historian who was working on a book published in 1952 about arts and crafts from the internment camps.
Over the decades, the collection came into the hands of an anonymous friend of the Eaton family. He decided to auction them off, which caught the attention of Japanese-Americans like Barbara Takei, who helped to lead online protests against the sale.
"This has been a very intense two weeks," says Takei, whose mother was among the thousands of American citizens of Japanese descent forced to live in internment camps after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor.
David Rago, one of the auction house's owners, says the ideal solution to the controversy is to find a museum to house the items. "We want to see the property end up where it can do the most good for history, and I do believe the consigner wants that as well," he says.
The collection includes carved wooden nameplates that were once attached to tar-paper barracks, as well as oil and watercolor paintings of Japanese-American families living behind barbed wire.
"We're talking about items that were produced by prisoners, who were wrongfully concentrated into absolutely abysmal places," says historian Marc Masurovsky, who co-founded the Holocaust Art Restitution Project.
There are parallels between the paintings Jewish families lost during World War II and the artifacts of Japanese-American internment camps. Masurovsky says descendants of both groups deserve a say in what happens to these objects.
"It's a healing process," he says. "And that's why you have to have that kind of sensibility and sensitivity, and sit down and recognize that and accept it so that an element of justice can be performed."
The internment camp artifacts may not have the same financial value as masterpieces of European painting. But they were among the few possessions of Japanese-American families devastated by a chapter of U.S. history that left many penniless and without a home after the war.
Delphine Hirasuna, an expert on art created in the camps, says they're high in emotional value.
"Most families have nothing from that period to show for it," she says. "Here is something that gives them pride about what they're grandparents created under really bad circumstances."
The circumstances of Takei's protests may have changed now that the auction's called off. But she says the story isn't over.
"It's the beginning of a different chapter," she says. "Now we have time to begin exploring how best to preserve it, so that it won't be scattered to the wind."
The Rago auction house says it will now work with Japanese-American groups to help the collection's owner decide where the artifacts go.
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