Art From Japanese-American Internment Camps Saved From Auction Block

Art From Japanese-American Internment Camps Saved From Auction Block

12:23pm Apr 18, 2015
This watercolor scene at a mess hall in Wyoming's Heart Mountain internment camp was painted by Estelle Peck Ishigo, a white woman who voluntarily followed her Japanese-American husband into internment camps.
This watercolor scene at a mess hall in Wyoming's Heart Mountain internment camp was painted by Estelle Peck Ishigo, a white woman who voluntarily followed her Japanese-American husband into internment camps.
Courtesy of Rago Arts and Auction Center
  • This watercolor scene at a mess hall in Wyoming's Heart Mountain internment camp was painted by Estelle Peck Ishigo, a white woman who voluntarily followed her Japanese-American husband into internment camps.

    This watercolor scene at a mess hall in Wyoming's Heart Mountain internment camp was painted by Estelle Peck Ishigo, a white woman who voluntarily followed her Japanese-American husband into internment camps.

    Courtesy of Rago Arts and Auction Center

  • The collection also includes containers and furniture that Japanese-American internees made from scrap lumber found inside the internment camps.

    The collection also includes containers and furniture that Japanese-American internees made from scrap lumber found inside the internment camps.

    Courtesy of Rago Arts and Auction Center

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.

The collection also includes containers and furniture that Japanese-American internees made from scrap lumber found inside the internment camps.

The collection also includes containers and furniture that Japanese-American internees made from scrap lumber found inside the internment camps.

Courtesy of Rago Arts and Auction Center

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.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

There is an auction planned for tomorrow in New Jersey. It was supposed to feature more than 400 works of art by Japanese-Americans who were wrongfully imprisoned in World War II internment camps. But the auction house withdrew the items last night following protests by the artists' families. NPR's Hansi Lo Wang has more.

HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: Japanese-American families donated many of the pieces to an historian named Allen Eaton. He was working on a book published in 1952 about artwork 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, and that caught the attention of Japanese-Americans like Barbara Takei.

BARBARA TAKEI: Well, this has been a very intense two weeks and especially intense the last five days.

WANG: Takei's mother was among the thousands of American citizens of Japanese descent forced by the U.S. government to live in internment camps during World War II. Takei's helped to lead online protests against the sale. Even David Rago, one of the auction house's owners, said the ideal solution was finding a museum to house the items.

DAVID RAGO: 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.

WANG: The collection includes carved wooden nameplates that were once attached to tar paper barracks and oil paintings of Japanese-American families living behind barbed wire.

MARC MASUROVSKY: We're talking about items that were produced by prisoners, OK, who were wrongfully concentrated into absolutely abysmal places.

WANG: Historian Marc Masurovsky 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.

MASUROVSKY: It's a healing process, 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.

WANG: 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. So Delphine Hirasuna, an expert on art created in the camps, says they're high in emotional value.

DELPHINE HIRASUNA: Most families have nothing from that period to show for it, and so here is something that gives them pride about what their grandparents created under really bad circumstances.

WANG: The circumstances of Barbara Takei's protests may have changed now that the auction's called off. But she says the story isn't over.

TAKEI: Oh, no. It's the beginning of a different chapter. Now we have time to begin exploring how best to preserve it so that it won't be scattered to the wind.

WANG: The Rago auction house says it will now work with Japanese-American groups to help the collection's owner decide where the artifacts go. Hansi Lo Wang, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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