The Lifespan of a Promise


ANALYSIS: Ethical, cultural and financial issues behind the Rago camp artifacts auction

Editor’s note: Since this article was written, The Rafu Shimpo received word that the incarceration artifacts have been removed from Rago’s Friday auction. Full report to come.

FOR SALE: Scheduled for the Rago Arts auction this Friday is a collection of WWII incarceration artifacts, which includes 14 paintings by Estelle Ishigo (left) and photographs, like this one of the late Sakiko Shiga (right). Although auction of these objects breaks no law or policy, it falls into an ethical gray area. Similarly, the sacred Hopi mask "Tumas Crow Mother" (center) was sold in a Paris auction that, while within the bounds of French law, sparked a public outcry. (Credits: Hopi mask from Art Et Communication, others from Rago Arts)

FOR SALE: Scheduled for the Rago Arts auction this Friday is a collection of WWII incarceration artifacts, which includes 14 paintings by Estelle Ishigo (left) and photographs, like this one of the late Sakiko Shiga (right). Although auction of these objects breaks no law or policy, it falls into an ethical gray area. Similarly, the sacred Hopi mask “Tumas Crow Mother” (center) was sold in a Paris auction that, while within the bounds of French law, sparked a public outcry. (Credits: Hopi mask from Art Et Communication, others from Rago Arts)

Rafu Online Editor

In the summer of 2013, an unnamed consigner walked into the Rago Arts auction house in Lambertville, New Jersey for its free Monday appraisal service. This consigner had found a statuette in the attic and thought it might have real value. Crafted in sterling silver by a well-known California silver manufacturer, it features a horse and rider, both pitched forward in perpetual chase, both hooded. The horse, its eyes ringed by the eyeholes in its hood, has a cartoonish look, a caricature of bloodthirst or terror. The man grips the reins with one hand and holds the other in the air. It’s hard to see him as cartoonish, or even to see him objectively. His hood says it all, and in case you miss it, so does the inscription on the base below the horse’s hooves: “The Clansman.”

If this were the whole story of the statuette, Rago wouldn’t have agreed to auction it. Though each auction house draws the line differently when deciding which artifacts are fit for sale, Rago saw little value in an object meant to glorify white supremacy. But the inscription on the other side of the base changed everything: “To David Wark Griffith,” it read, “in Appreciation from Robert Goldstein.” Griffith, in 1915, directed The Birth of a Nation, a film about the KKK that, though controversial even at the time, was revolutionary in its techniques and continues to be acknowledged as a major landmark of modern cinema.

“Suddenly what was a heinous figure made beautifully becomes an important piece of film history,” says Miriam Tucker, one of the partners at Rago. “Do you sell it or not? We decided to do it.”

Now the same auction house is in the middle of a controversy that directly affects the Japanese American community. This Friday, as part of its Great Estates sale, Rago will be auctioning off the collection of Allen Hendershott Eaton, a former member of the Oregon State Legislature, who went on to become an advocate for American folk art. During WWII, he visited the Japanese American concentration camps to collect photos and artifacts for an exhibit he planned to curate. The photographs, he commissioned, and the artifacts—pieces like miniature landscapes and carved wooden nameplates that families hung outside the doors of their barracks—he both bought and received as gifts. Eaton opposed the incarceration, and people gave him their possessions knowing his position, hoping that they would be helping to educate Americans about the injustice they had faced at the hands of their own government.

It’s still unclear how Eaton obtained some of the objects in his collection, including the 14 paintings (two oil and 12 watercolor) by Estelle Peck Ishigo, who became well-known as the white woman who electively followed her Japanese American husband into incarceration. Some people who recognize family members in the photos up for auction also question their origins and the consignor’s right to them. Yoshinori “Toso” Himel, whose mother’s photo is one of the most striking in the collection, told The Sacramento Bee that this particular portrait was taken outside of the concentration camps, in Chicago, where Himel’s mother worked in a photo finishing lab.

Though Eaton never put together an exhibit, he did write a book, Beauty Behind Barbed Wire, which, more than four decades after it was published, I used as a reference for my undergraduate thesis. It contains more than 80 photos, not just of folk arts, but of people in the concentration camps in the process of creating: arranging flowers, practicing calligraphy, crafting together in the makeshift living room of a barrack. The number and breadth of photos shows how much access Eaton was given, maybe an indication of how responsive incarcerated Japanese Americans were to this sympathetic advocate who promised to take on their cause.

By all accounts, it seems that Eaton honored his promise as long as he lived, to use these artifacts for educational purposes only. But when he died, his collection transferred to his daughter. When she died, it left the family altogether. The man selling the collection through Rago now is three degrees and three inheritances removed from Eaton, the son of a friend of Eaton’s daughter. This man made no direct promises to incarcerated Japanese Americans, yet he inherited a tangible piece of Japanese American history. With it, protestors of the auction believe he also inherited an obligation—to Eaton’s word, to the expectations of the artists and artisans who sold and donated their work, and to the Japanese American community.

A grassroots protest has grown online, centered around a petition and a Facebook community page called “Japanese American History: NOT for Sale.” The page collects press coverage and personal comments, such as that of Rev. Bob Oshita of the Sacramento Betsuin Buddhist church who writes the following:

The drawings, paintings, photographs & crafts… are not pieces of art meant to decorate a private collection. They are deep and quiet expressions of the hope and despair felt by a people enduring the trauma of racism, hatred and fear. What you are planning to sell should be a part of our shared social conscience… and not viewed as simply art for display. We may not be able to stop profiteering on the suffering of others, but we must, at the very least, speak out against it. Please reconsider what you are doing.

The consignor, in a quote released by Rago, calls the protest a “social media attack” meant to “bully us into compliance with their demands.”

According to Miriam Tucker of Rago Arts, the consignor truly felt he was doing the right thing when he chose to auction off the collection, his rationale being that he didn’t feel qualified to choose one institution over another, and that he wasn’t “in a financial position to donate.” Both he and Tucker say they hope the collection will end up reunited with the Japanese American community, though the community will have to bid for it. Tucker also says that Rago will donate its share of the profits and provide potential bidders with the names of “academics, foundation directors, and officials” who have offered to supplement bids to ensure that the artifacts will end up in the right hands.

Miriam Tucker speaks with the warm, occasionally anxious voice of someone caught in a controversy bigger than she expected. When I spoke to her over the phone, she proposed sending a written comment first, but when I asked her about the ethical obligations of auctioneers, she opened up, giving sincere answers when others in her position might have hidden behind carefully drafted press releases.

But as thoughtful as an auctioneer can be, they still, by necessity, see objects differently than the average person. For them, appraisal is about market value, not about emotional value. “People will bring in their grandmother’s wedding ring and we’ll tell them that it’s worth nothing beyond what it can be sold for scrap,” says Tucker. “They’ll say, but it’s priceless. And we know that it’s priceless. The Eaton collection is priceless.” Protesters of the auction, she believes, are conflating these two types of value, and are offended because they believe Rago is putting a price tag on their families’ wartime suffering.

Human sympathy aside, auctions are predicated on the idea that market value has meaning, that there is some worth in assigning a price to a piece of artwork or a historical artifact and letting it go to the highest bidder. The boundaries of what is fit for auction depend on the house and on the individual piece, and it often takes controversy to shift them.

In November 2013, a collection of Holocaust memorabilia—including anti-Semitic propaganda, from children’s picture books to pamphlets on “how to spot a Jew”—was put up for auction on eBay. The reaction from the public led eBay to pull the contested listings, stating that their policies prohibited the sale of such objects. Still, with a quick search, it’s easy enough to find other Holocaust-related, even anti-Semitic objects for sale. Even with a ban in place, lines blur, and enforcement—especially on a site as large and user-driven as eBay—is difficult.

“It’s complicated,” says Tucker. “It’s really, really complicated. Some auction houses won’t sell anything that shows man’s inhumanity against man because they don’t want the controversy. They don’t want to lose business. Others with a historical focus would sell Nazi memorabilia that others find repulsive. As far as we’re concerned, we take these things on a case-by-case basis.”

The KKK statuette, for example, a relic of hatred and violence that, with one inscription, became a piece of film history. As far as the Holocaust goes, while Rago wouldn’t sell a Nazi uniform, if someone approached them with an important letter, say from Field Marshall Erwin Rommel, then maybe they would sell it, says Tucker.

So much of these decisions seems to come from instinct, from moral distinction drawn by an individual or an institution. In the end, they’re objective, in other words, with room to bend.

Under U.S. law, both the consignor and Rago Arts have the right to sell the Eaton collection. The consignor inherited the collection from his father, after all, and his father even purchased some of the pieces from Eaton’s daughter before she died and left him the rest. But just as Rago and protesters approach the concept of “value” from different planes, they do the same when it comes to rights and responsibilities. While Rago and the consignor feel they’re in the right because they have the law behind them, protesters see this auction as a moral, not legal, issue.

The collection isn’t significant only for its origin with the Japanese American community or for its family photos and nameplates. Because it originated during the WWII incarceration, it’s inseparable from the darkest event in Japanese American history, an event that is still underrepresented in American history books and classrooms, swept under the rug because Japanese Americans, as part of the Asian American “model minority,” are by most measures successful in and assimilated into American society. Meanwhile, a decreasing number of people remain who experienced the incarceration firsthand as young adults or teenagers, old enough to remember it as a breach of rights rather than just a change of scenery. Anxiety about the loss of these stories—and through them their lessons for our country—permeates the Japanese American community, and that is the lens through which protesters see the auction.

A similar case of law versus morality played out in 2013 and 2014 when Paris auction houses held at least three auctions of Native American artifacts, including sacred masks and headdresses. The U.S. Embassy and the Holocaust Art Restitution Project were among the vocal protesters of the sales, which were not illegal in France and would not have been strictly forbidden in the United States either.

During the December 2013 sale by the auction house Drouot, the Los Angeles-based Annenberg Foundation bought 24 objects through anonymous bids for a total of $530,000, which they then returned to the Hopi and Apache nations. “The Annenberg Foundation set an example of how to do the right thing,” said Sam Tenakhongva, a Hopi cultural leader, in response to the donation. “Our hope is that this act sets an example for others that items of significant cultural and religious value can only be properly cared for by those vested with the proper knowledge and responsibility. They simply cannot be put up for sale.”

The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, created in 1990, requires federal agencies and institutions that receive federal funding to return Native American cultural items to their tribes of origin. Though the act doesn’t cover private collectors or independent institutions, it does set a precedent for shifting the conversation from market value to cultural value. It also calls into question the idea of ownership. In the comments section of an L.A. Times article about the Paris auction controversy, people debated the legal ownership of the religious artifacts, some arguing that Native Americans must have sold them in the first place, forsaking their ownership and thus their right to protest. But whether the artifacts were bought, given, or stolen in the first place, the distinction matters little in the context of Native American history, which is full of violence and coercion and entirely colored by the concept of manifest destiny that pushed entire tribes of people into the margins of their own land, if it didn’t kill them first.

The WWII incarceration does not come close to matching the scale of Native American treatment by the U.S. government in terms of either duration or number of deaths, but it is similar in that it imbues its artifacts with fraught, painful inherent meaning. Though auction houses must, to do their jobs, pull away from any object the layers that have nothing to do with market value, there is always room to question and to change behavior and policy.

On Tuesday, April 14, the Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation (HMWF) announced that it had been negotiating with the consignor of the Eaton collection since mid-March. When the consignor told the foundation that he couldn’t afford to donate, HMWF raised the funds to make a cash offer, one they say “far exceeded the estimated auction value.” Along with the payment, the organization promised to work with other Japanese American groups to find the most appropriate home for the collection. On April 13, the consignor officially rejected the offer.

According to Tucker, part of the consignor’s motivation to sell the collection now is so that his children won’t have to deal with the burden of choosing where to place it. “And it’s a terrible burden,” she says. “I wouldn’t want to take it. The name plates, for example—let’s say one was for the ‘Yamamoto’ family. So who gets that? The rich Yamamoto who can afford it? The poor Yamamoto who can’t? Or the Yamamoto who is in Japan and hasn’t even heard about it?”

But with the Heart Mountain development in the light, profit clearly factors in as well for this consigner, and calling Japanese American protesters “bullies” across the board has won him no sympathy.

“What an offensive sense of entitlement is expressed by those words!” writes Janis Hirohama in a comment on the protest’s Facebook page. “After being betrayed, imprisoned, and mistreated by their own government and countrymen, now the trust of those who gave these artifacts to Allen Eaton is being violated. And you, sir or madam, feel ‘bullied’ and ‘attacked’? Give me a break!” Another commenter, Edstavus Minaj Chungsterfield, accuses the consignor of a “serious lack of perspective.”

Rago has not disclosed the consignor’s name, so although he has received criticism, his reputation is safe. He has also sold through Rago before, so it’s particularly interesting that he, as an experienced consigner, seems so troubled about the way protesters perceive his intentions. While he may well have approached Rago feeling it was the right thing to do, and while he may have the legal right to do as he pleases with the pieces he inherited, a person motivated by the “right thing” would listen to the concerns of the Japanese American community and use them to inform his eventual decision. And a person motivated by profit, if graceful, would own up to it and expect a backlash.

At the same time, to place all the blame on the consignor or on Rago Arts would be disingenuous. When I discussed this case with one community member, he called it “death by a thousand cuts,” with many parties sharing a bit of the blame for the final result. Eaton, for the promises he kept during his lifetime and the contribution he made with Beauty Behind Barbed Wire, left his collection with his daughter rather than securing an educational home for it. His daughter, despite keeping most of the collection together, sold some of it during her lifetime, for a profit.

In 1964, former University of California regent Edward W. Carter and his wife Hannah Locke Carter donated their house and Japanese garden to UCLA, with the promise that the university would take care of the property forever. Hannah Carter died in 2009, and in May 2011, UCLA, citing an increasing cost of maintenance, announced its plans to auction off the garden. The Carter children sued. Almost four years later, the family and UCLA have yet to reach an agreement.

There are many parallels between the Hannah Carter Japanese Garden and the Eaton collection cases, but the difference that interests me most is that one involves unwritten promises made with an individual; the other, a written contract with an institution. A donor, making a gift to a university, can make a “forever” promise and expect it to be upheld. But unlike an institution, a person has a limited lifetime. For one man’s promise to last through generations, truly in perpetuity, seems magical in its impossibility.

But this argument isn’t about the lifespan of a promise between people or about any other cold technicalities like market value. It’s about that gray area of instinct between policy and ethics, between permissible and right, and about how the consigner and Rago Arts—at the end of a half-century-long chain of responsibility—have a chance now to change the story.


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