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Protests to Stop Auction of Japanese American Internment Camp Items Slated for April 17, 2015

Suzanne Kai

April 15, 2015 7:00pm PST


News received tonight from community protesters say that the Rago auction house has agreed to remove from its April 17 auction approximately 450 art, crafts and artifacts made by Japanese Americans while they were incarcerated in World War II internment camps.

The auction which was to be conducted by the Rago Arts and Auction Center of New Jersey caused a national public outrage including a grass-roots petition on created by filmmaker and therapist Satsuki Ina of Sacramento, California, a Facebook page "Japanese American History: NOT for Sale," efforts by community organizations to stop the sale, an intent to file a lawsuit by Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation after its cash offer to acquire the collection was rejected, and calls to the auction house by "Star Trek" actor George Takei who with his family spent time in one of the camps.

Yesterday, The Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation issued a news release that its cash offer had been rejected by the seller, however tonight, the foundation issued a statement that the auction house withdrew the auction today within hours after the foundation's legal counsel communicated its intent to file a lawsuit. Most of the items which were scheduled to be sold were made by, or personal effects of Japanese Americans incarcerated at the Heart Mountain Relocation Center.

The Rago auction house told CNN, "This is an essential discussion to be had about the sale of historical items that are a legacy of man's inhumanity to man. It extends beyond what is legal. It is something auction houses, galleries and dealers are faced with regularly." "We hope this controvery will be the beginning of a discourse on this issue."  

George Takei has agreed to act as an intermediary between the auction house and Japanese American community institutions. 

Image: Watercolor by an unknown artist at Tule Lake War Relocation Center - Rago Arts and Auction Center

For more on this story: 

CNN: After furor, auction house pulls items from Japanese-American WWII camps by AnneClaire Stapleton and Steve Amasy, CNN April 15, 2015

The News Tribune: April 15, 2015

NJTV News: April 15, 2015


April 14, 2015 3:00pm PST


Efforts have failed by the Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation to stop a scheduled April 17 10am EST public auction of aproximately 450 heritage objects and artifacts made by Japanese Americans who were incarcerated in internment camps. 

The Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation issued this news release at 2:30PST April 14:

(full press release is below) ..."Unfortunately, on April 13, the HWMF learned their proposal to enable all parties to escape the indignity of a public auction and to assure the rightful stewardship of this exceptional collection had been rejected. It is now clear that the consignors are resolute in allowing this unconscionable auction to proceed." 

A Facebook page named "Japanese American History: NOT for Sale" was posted by organizers of a protest to stop an auction scheduled April 17, 2015 at 10AM EST which includes about 450 items of heritage objects and artifacts made by Japanese Americans who were incarcerated in internment camps.

Rago Auction House, the auction company in Lambertville, New Jersey scheduled to sell off these items is reportedly hired to conduct the sale by the heirs of the estate of the late Allen Hendershott Eaton. 

Since mid-March, The Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation (HMWF) has been exploring every possible avenue to prevent a priceless collection of art and crafts created by Japanese Americans, who were illegally confined in remote camps during World War II, from being auctioned. The collection of Allen Hendershott Eaton artifacts is set to sell at auction this Friday, April 17, through Rago Arts and Auctions in Lamberville, NJ. The lots concerning the Japanese American incarceration artworks amount to 450 pieces and images, many prominently featuring Heart Mountain as their subject matter.

“When the camps closed, many Japanese Americans were focused on rebuilding their lives. They weren’t in a position to think about keeping or preserving their artwork,” said Shirley Ann Higuchi, Chair of the Foundation. Her parents met while confined at Heart Mountain. “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. If we don’t act now to slow this auction down or delay it entirely, we’re not doing the right thing,” she said.  

The HMWF began their protest by respectfully asking the consignor 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, non-profit institutions. When these suggestions were rejected by the consignor, the HWMF secured pledges from its board members and friends to make a substantial cash offer—one that far exceeded the estimated auction value of all the incarceration-related items. With the offer, the HMWF made its intent clear: if allowed to secure the collection through such an offer, the Foundation would work with interested and appropriate Japanese American institutions and organizations to reach consensus on where the items would be most appropriately preserved, housed and exhibited. Unfortunately, on April 13, the HWMF learned their proposal to enable all parties to escape the indignity of a public auction and to assure the rightful stewardship of this exceptional collection had been rejected. It is now clear that the consignors are resolute in allowing this unconscionable auction to proceed. 

“Over the last several days, we have worked in good faith with the consignor through Rago to find a positive resolution that would end the auction,” said HMWF Executive Director Brian Liesinger. “The fact that we were met with rejection on all of our appeals—and the Japanese American community’s appeals—is baffling.”

Along with a growing number of individuals and groups, both within and beyond the Japanese American community, the HMWF is saddened and offended by the consignor’s and auction house’s apparent indifference to the history, meaning, and appropriate treatment of the invaluable community legacy this collection represents. The value of these precious objects cannot be measured in dollars; their value instead lies in the suffering, resilience, spirit and dignity of those who created them while wrongfully confined behind barbed wire. The HMWF will continue to pursue and support any and all lawful actions to oppose this wrongful public sale.  

For more information about this important issue see the full release with historical context on our website.

The Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation manages the Heart Mountain Interpretive Center on the site of the former “Heart Mountain Relocation Center.” The National Historic Landmark site is devoted tomemorializing the experiences of more than 14,000 Japanese Americans incarcerated there during World War II with a museum, gallery, archive, original camp structures, war memorial and memorial walking trail. It is located between Cody and Powell on Highway 14A. For more information, call (307) 754-8000 or visit


April 11, 2015


A Facebook page named "Japanese American History: NOT for Sale" has been posted by organizers of a protest to stop an auction scheduled April 17, 2015 at 10AM EST which includes about 450 items of heritage objects and artifacts made by Japanese Americans who were incarcerated in internment camps.

Rago Auction House, the auction company in Lambertville, New Jersey scheduled to sell off these items is reportedly hired to conduct the sale by the heirs of the estate of the late Allen Hendershott Eaton. 

The Facebook page protesting the auction posted the following message yesterday at 12:26am - "The items to be auctioned were given to the original collector for free.

Allen H. Eaton, who amassed this collection, was an esteemed expert on crafts and immigrant art. He was opposed to the wartime incarceration of Japanese Americans and wanted to display the beauty that was being made in the camps. "How could this story be told to the world outside?" he wrote in his 1952 book, "Beauty Behind Barbed Wire." To his surprise, when he visited the camps, he wrote that people "offered to give me things to the point of embarrassment, but not to sell them…""Now these will be auctioned and dispersed into private collections, betraying the imprisoned donors and the collector's intent. Please ask Rago to remove these lots from the auction."

JAPANESE AMERICAN HISTORY NOT FOR SALE NAME PLATESItems slated to be auctioned off April 17 at 10AM EST include wood carved family name plates, personal effects such as pins and jewelry, and according to a New York Times article oil paintings, and artifacts such as cigarette boxes made of string recyled from onion sacks.

Visitor comments posted to the Facebook page "Japanese American History: NOT for Sale" reflect a range of emotions from anger, shock and disgust over the scheduled auction, to people upset over the financial gain of artifacts of a very sad period of American history. One post from a visitor says, "I'm pissed and upset. In the worst case, I imagine some nice Nisei elder feeling honored by Eaton's interest in something the elder himself didn't feel had much value, giving the item away as an act of gratitude. To then have that item sold in auction so someone can financially benefit from the arts and crafts that tell the story of survival and trauma seems like exploitation of the worst kind." 

Message from Rago Arts today, 8:09 a.m. (April 10, 2015):

"To the readers of this Facebook page, we have made our consigner aware of the outcry and upset that this auction is creating. We would like you be aware of the facts of the matter. Rago has respectfully answered the emails directed to us, included emails to some who are active on this page.

The consigner and his family inherited the Eaton estate with its multiple collections from the Eaton family. He is a client for whom we have sold other property from the collections and with whom we have a relationship. They have held this property for over three decades and have been approached by multiple institutions asking them to donate. They take the responsibility for these collections very seriously, but are not in a financial position to donate.

The consigner did not feel comfortable choosing one institution over another nor qualified to do so. He didn’t want to leave the responsibility to his children. He felt that selling at auction was the best way to expose the property publicity to all. We agreed to handle this for him.

It has been our hope from the start that all these pieces would find their way back either to families or to museums for display, research and education. We have made every effort to see that this happens by contacting museums and affinity groups and important media outlets such as The New York Times.

Whether the sale continues as planned is ultimately the decision of our consigner. If this auction does proceed on April 17, it is an opportunity for multiple museums and institutions to secure this property and for private citizens who have the means, individually and collectively, to donate. 

There may still be a mutually agreeable solution to be found. We hope so."

-The Partners of Rago Arts and Auction Center

JAPANESE AMERICAN HISTORY NOT FOR SALE-PINS AND BROOCHESReply to Rago from the protest organizers who posted the Facebook page (to Rago's post above): 

"Dear Rago Arts, we appreciate your reply. But this is more than a business transaction to us. 

The sale of items of deep personal value on a cold and indifferent open market is reminiscent of the humiliation that our families had to endure when they were first incarcerated. American citizens of Japanese descent were ordered into camps and only able to bring what they could carry in their hands. This forced them to hurriedly sell most of their precious personal items. The auction is an insensitive replication of this trauma that all of our families were forced to live through. Going through with this auction is emblematic of the same brutal insensitivity that characterized the original order to incarcerate our families.

Since the catalogue was posted online 10 days ago, people have found personal connections to items. For example, genealogical research on nameplates (Lots 1246 and 1247) that were hung on tar paper barracks has found that many came from the Granada camp and that immediate descendants of these families are alive. If a beautifully carved nameplate belongs to a family that can be identified, should not that person or persons have the opportunity to know this and have, at the very least, the option of first refusal? To ask that family to compete with national and perhaps international bidders to reclaim their family's material heritage, created under conditions for which the US Government apologized in 1988, is heartless and, in our view, not good enough. Please try to understand how humiliating it is for these families to participate in this auction. 

The items are slated to go on the auction block in seven days, next Friday. (Auction is scheduled 10AM EST April 17, 2015) There is no time to research and explore the many questions this collection raises. Please slow down the process and remove these lots from your Great Estates auction. There are 450 camp items bundled into 24 lots in next week’s auction. That is 3 percent of the entire estate auction of 747 lots. Removing the Japanese American heritage property will not stop the rest of that day's business from continuing and will show a sensitivity to how important these items are to our community. 

You say that your consigner is not in a financial capacity to donate. You also say that they inherited the Eaton collection and that you have auctioned items for them in the past. We emphasize that we do not have answers and we are not asking for a donation, just that you delay the sale so that more research and examination of these complex issues can be carried out. 

We believe it is the Japanese American makers of these artifacts who were “not in a position to donate.” All lost property, some their homes, businesses and land. Home life was never the same and some lost family members. And yet they did donate. They gave "to the point of embarrassment, but not to sell them," according to Mr. Eaton's own words. Please help us make this right for everyone."



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