By MARTHA NAKAGAWA, Rafu Contributor
A recurring topic of discussion among attendees at the 46th Manzanar Pilgrimage on April 25 was the recent social media campaign that halted, at least temporarily, the sale by an East Coast auction house of artwork made and photographs taken in the various War Relocation Authority camps during World War II.
The Rago Arts and Auction Center had been set to auction off 450 camp artifacts from the Allen Eaton collection on April 17, when various concerned organizations and individuals contacted the auction house and took to the Internet to publicize the controversy.
The artifacts had been originally given to the late Eaton, who had written a book on camp art and had intended to put the actual artifacts in an exhibit to tell the story of the camps, but the artifacts have since been given to others after his death.
Yoshinori H.T. Himel, a retired civil rights lawyer, found a photograph of his mother among the items being auctioned off.
When asked at the Manzanar Pilgrimage how he felt about seeing his mother’s image being sold, he reflected upon the question and responded via email.
“I felt sad at first, because the war was a traumatic time for my mom,” wrote Himel. “Her dad, an immigrant to Seattle, died at an early age after being interned in two DOJ (Department of Justice) camps, Missoula and Bismarck, and ‘paroled’ for no crime.
“Her brother, a pacifist, was imprisoned because of his conscientious objection to all war, and he became the subject of Dr. Mengele-like medical experiments, including being confined in a full body cast.
“My mom and her sisters were not told where their dad was, traveled eastward through Montana to search for him, and became refugees in Chicago with their family dismembered. This photo, taken in Chicago by the War Relocation Authority, misrepresented her as being a happy Japanese American.
“After reflecting on this first violation of her, I became outraged that private parties intended to violate her again by auctioning this false propaganda photo of her. In the online auction catalog, her photo had no interpretation, no context, and not even her name — nothing but the number 1252.”
Although Himel understands that auctioning of the artifacts is legal, he also felt profiting from human oppression was morally reprehensible.
“Before the Civil War, human beings were torn from their families and auctioned. As a society we have progressed toward some appreciation of the violence that auctions to the highest bidder can wreak, and we have prohibited trafficking in some significant objects,” he said.
“When Americans were imprisoned by their own government for no crime, and when Mr. Eaton visited them to obtain their creations, he promised to place the items on public view to foster an appreciation of the circumstances in which they were made. These Americans properly expected Mr. Eaton to keep his promise. More than one suitable institution is preparing to do that, and they should not be forced to bid against each other to acquire these items of our history.”
Himel hopes the Nikkei community can acquire the collection by negotiating with the seller, and if they are acquired, hopes the artifacts and photographs can be curated, preserved, interpreted and displayed in a public institution.
As for his mother’s photograph, Himel said he hopes it can be “reunited with other related ones and properly interpreted by a suitable museum, perhaps in her hometown of Seattle. The idea of having to bid competitively for my mother’s photo is repugnant to me.”
Before the April 17 auction date, the Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation had initially asked to have the artifacts donated, especially since there were several Estelle Ishigo paintings done in Heart Mountain included in the lot, but when that request failed, the organization had offered to purchase the items for $50,000. This offer had also been rejected, and the organization made plans to file a lawsuit.
About the same time, actor George Takei, a former Rohwer and Tule Lake inmate, stepped in to mediate the situation.
Brian Liesinger, Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation executive director, said the foundation plans to continue discussing the issue with all the organizations involved.
“It’s hard to say what will happen,” said Liesinger. “My hope is that they’ll (auction house) be true to their word and the message that they’re putting out in the public, and that they are interested in making sure that this collection is treated properly with full consideration to those non-profit organizations that could care for them.”
According to a statement released by Rago on April 14, the auction house offered to donate the proceeds, but that remains to be seen.
Manzanar Superintendent Bernadette Lovato Johnson congratulated everyone involved in the social media campaign, especially the Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation, and noted that the National Park Service had been discussing how it could help this issue.
“From a Park Service perspective, we would like to see the collection remain intact to the greatest extent possible,” said Johnson. “And if there’s decisions made in the broader Japanese American community about if descendants want pieces, we want to support those efforts.
“Also if we can assist with technical expertise, if the collection is acquired, by helping with temporary storage at some of our curatorial facilities or even helping with interpretation and education.”
Johnson encouraged whoever or whatever institution acquires the collection to apply for a NPS Japanese American Confinement Site grant. “That’s another way the National Park Service could help the effort,” she said.
Dr. Satsuki Ina, who was one of the first persons to start circulating the auction information via the Internet, said discussions are ongoing.
“We’re in the process of getting people to talk to each other,” said Ina. “And now, it seems like, rather than this grassroots group that said stop and delay the sale, we have people exploring the history and identifying and confirming the ownership and all of that.… I think the most powerful thing to come out of this Rago event is that if anybody tries to auction off any camp artifacts, they’re going to be in for big trouble, really fast.”
Barbara Takei of Sacramento, who organized an ad hoc committee and has been coordinating with East Coast resident Toshi Abe, a Japanese American Citizens League board member, voiced similar sentiment. “We hope that Rago will treat the Japanese American community’s request with some respect,” Takei said. “We don’t want this to become a situation where the Japanese American community organizations and individuals are all bidding against one another.”
Lorna Fong, who kept the public updated through the Tule Lake Committee Facebook site, said, “We’re hopeful that negotiations will continue with the mediation of actor and activist George Takei, coupled with the Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation continuing to be a part of the discussion. We hope that the entire Eaton collection can find an appropriate home in a museum or other institution for generations to treasure.”
Bruce Embrey, co-chair of the Manzanar Committee, credited the success of the social media campaign to the groundwork laid by those involved with the different camp pilgrimages.
“The success really stem from the pilgrimages,” said Embrey. “Whether they’re at Manzanar, Tule Lake, Minidoka, Heart Mountain — the pilgrimages make a mark and people pay attention.
“…Some people called this war profiteering. Other people had other names for it, but they chose to withdraw those items, that lot from that auction. And they chose to do it because there was an outcry from our community. There was an outpouring of protest from those of us that are the direct descendants, as well as those who were in camp. That is a victory. These victories come about because we are aware of what happened. We’re aware of where we’ve been and what our families endured.”