I have been witness to an amazing event. In case you haven’t heard about it, please check out the Facebook page, “Japanese American History: NOT For Sale.” The page and a petition accompanying it have brought attention to the sale by auction of a historic collection of art and artifacts that had been collected by Allen Hendershott Eaton, a folk art specialist back in the 1940s. Eaton, an active opponent of the government’s imprisoning of Japanese Americans during World War II, had gone to several camps to collect art and other pieces that had been created by inmates with an intention of displaying these pieces at an exhibit. He was met with friendliness and gratitude by these persons who gave him their art because he showed such interest and appreciation. Eaton wanted to pay these people, but he said most would not accept money and indicated that these things were not for sale.
Eaton never got around to exhibiting the art, but he did publish a book called “Beauty Behind Barbed Wire” in 1952 that contained many photos of the pieces. When he died in 1962, the collection went to his daughters. Upon their death, a friend was named the heir. What happened next is not totally clear, since ownership was contested in court. Some family relatives claimed that the friend took advantage of an infirm, aged woman to give him all of Eaton’s art. A judge ruled that Ms. Eaton was able to make that decision and awarded the collection to the friend.
Now, the son of that friend inherited it all, and he put the collection up for auction. Notice of this auction appeared in the The New York Times, and caught the attention of many in our community. A very personal connection was made by some who found pictures of family included in the batches of photos and their anger and pain were noted in articles in major newspapers and on TV shows. “Stop Rago” (the Rago Arts and Auction Center) became a rallying cry, and thousands participated by signing the petition and signaling a “like” and leaving comments on the Facebook page. It was, to use a cliché, “awesome.” (And it’s a more complicated story which you can find on the Facebook page.)
As a result, the auction was canceled. It was a terrific feel good moment, but it doesn’t end here. A number of institutions have expressed interest in acquiring the collection, but we now know that it was purchased by the Japanese American National Museum. Apparently, part of the deal was a non-disclosure provision and so how it all happened will remain something of a mystery. A group of activists is working on this situation and as I understand it, negotiations continue.
But the big story was the way the community and sympathetic parties coalesced to join the fray and support this grassroots movement. It’s also indicative of the power of social media, the speed with which information can be spread, and, to me, the most important point, was the outpouring of opinion from a generally passive Japanese American community. The comments were strong and loud, the feelings were powerful and emphatic. This art is clearly a part of our cultural heritage and most agreed that selling it off in lots to the highest bidders was not acceptable.
Larger issues are raised, such as what to do with family memorabilia connected with our concentration camp history. Many families have such articles in their attics and garages, and where should they be put? These pieces and photos have significance and value as reminders of our collective story.
Maybe there are some who are wondering what all the fuss is about. I think that there are many out there who don’t know much about our camp ordeal and would like to find out more. Well, this could be a start of a big discussions within our community.
Chizu Omori, of Oakland, Calif., is co-producer of the award-winning film “Rabbit in the Moon.” She can be reached at email@example.com. The views expressed in the preceding column are not necessarily those of the Nichi Bei Weekly. The views expressed in the preceding column are not necessarily those of the Nichi Bei Weekly.