Auction of concentration camp artifacts halted after community outrage

The planned auctioning of hundreds of artifacts from World War II American concentration camps, which has galvanized Japanese Americans from coast to coast against the Lambertville, N.J.-based Rago Arts and Auctions Center, has been halted, the company announced April 15.

Toshi Abe, a National Japanese American Citizens League board member who lives in Princeton, N.J., about a half an hour from Rago, was contacted by an “ad hoc committee run by” activist Barbara Takei of Sacramento, Calif., and attended the event where the announcement was made.

Abe, who was among the countless activists involved in the issue, cited the “Japanese American History: Not For Sale” Facebook page for helping to generate interest in the issue. Once the New York Times covered the story, “interest snowballed,” the National JACL vice president of membership added.

NBC 10 Philadelphia, ABC7 KGO in San Francisco and the Sacramento Bee also ran stories on the auction.

The activists, Abe said, worked tirelessly “to get people to contact the auction house, to petition, to oppose the sale in anyway they could.”

Abe and his wife Nancy Hall were among the some 40 people in the audience at the auction house April 15, two days before the planned sale of the historical items.

The company made a brief announcement, Abe said, that the items Nikkei made during World War II would be removed from the April 17 auction, as a viable solution had been found. The company cited actor and activist George Takei as acting as a go-between, Abe said.

A post dated April 15 on the “Japanese American History: Not for Sale’s” Facebook page states that the objects “will be removed from the Rago auction on Friday, a company spokesman said in Lambertville, NJ, tonight. George Takei has agreed to act as an intermediary between the Rago auction house and Japanese American community institutions …”

“Thank you all for mobilizing on this important issue. It took a few calls today here in the wee hours, and I’ll be issuing a formal statement later, but we can all celebrate a bit today at this news,” Takei posted on the Facebook page, from Australia.

The page also states that, “‘We have withdrawn the lots from the auction,’ said Guy Benthin, the phone bidding coordinator for Rago Arts.”

Attempts to reach Rago Arts were unsuccessful as of press time.

Audience members “all broke out in applause.” It was a “popular decision, the right thing to do,” Abe said, noting that there was a “lot of hugging” in the room.

Activists, including members from the New York, Seabrook and Philadelphia chapters of the JACL, were going to hold a press conference in Lambertville if Rago had decided to hold the auction, Abe said. Moreover, some people were planning to bid “to try to save the lots from going into private hands.” They would then donate the items to a museum, Abe said.

The community effort, which extended across the nation, had generated more than 6,100 signatories in just three days on a change.org petition initiated by Lorna Fong of Sacramento, Calif. The activists protested the profiting of their historical trauma. Nikkei also took to Facebook — with nearly 5,800 “likes” — and Twitter, demanding that Rago stop the auction.

The auction house had initially refused a plea by a historical institution to delay the auction so that the community could better assess the contents of the collection.

“These items were given — not sold — to the original collector, Allen Eaton, because he wanted to display them in an exhibition that would help tell the story of the incarceration of 120,000 innocent people, more than half of them children,” Satsuki Ina, Ph.D., a licensed family therapist, filmmaker and former university professor wrote on the petition site.

Former camp inmates gave their artwork to historian Allen Hendershott Eaton as he was researching his 1952 book, “Beauty Behind Barbed Wire: The Arts of the Japanese in Our War Relocation Camps.”

“It 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.”

According to Ina and other activists, Rago had planned to auction off 450 “historical crafts and artifacts made by Japanese Americans confined in 10 WWII concentration camps.”

The activists demanded that Rago “remove Lots 1232-1255 and our cultural patrimony from the auction block. These items were not meant to be viewed in the privacy of a collector’s home and that a price tag should not be put on our cultural property.”

But Rago rejected what a historical institution termed as a “good faith effort” to remedy the situation.

Since mid-March, the Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation has been working to prevent the items from being auctioned, the organization said in a statement.

“The idea of making these pieces of art, which symbolize incarcerees’ efforts to make something beautiful out of a miserable experience — making them available to the highest bidder re-opens old wounds,” Shirley Ann Higuchi, chair of the HMWF said.

The HMWF asked the auction house to consider donating the items to Japanese American institutions “capable of conscientiously preserving and exhibiting them to serve the public interest.” The HMWF added that if the consignors “were unwilling or unable to donate, they should at least consider a private, negotiated sale with one or more appropriate community-supported, nonprofit institutions.”

When the consignor rejected these suggestions, the HMWF secured pledges from its board members and friends to make a cash offer that exceeded the estimated auction value of all the incarceration-related items, the HMWF said. “On April 13, the HMWF learned their proposal had been rejected,” the statement said.

Rago defined their position in an April 14 e-mail sent by Miriam Tucker, its managing partner, to those who opposed the sale.

“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,” said Tucker. “We would gladly work in any way we could with such an individual, family or group. We will donate our profit.”

According to Tucker, “The family has safeguarded this property for years and have been approached in this time by institutions asking them to donate. As we have said in earlier e-mails, they are not in a financial position to do so. The consignor doesn’t feel remotely qualified to choose one institution over another. He didn’t want to leave the responsibility to his children … He chose us (to) handle this for him.”

At least for now, the voices from a chorus of Japanese American activists, historians and everyday citizens have been heard.

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