Two important things happened last week. The first, was that Seattle's Panama Hotel (depicted in Hotel on the Corner of You Know What) was officially named a National Treasure, thus ensuring that a very valuable piece of real estate and the belongings of the 37 Japanese families therein, will never be flattened and turned into condos.
This was such welcome news. Because on the flip side of the historical spectrum, I found out that something less praiseworthy was happening.
Rago Auctions, an esteemed auction house, is selling a collection of artwork, photos, and documents that once belonged to Japanese families who were incarcerated in the US during WWII because of their race.
The artwork, created by people who had been wrongfully imprisoned, and the photos, many of which were used for propaganda, are part of a collection amassed by Allen Eaton. That collection, which was never meant to be sold, is now being sent to the auction block by someone who obtained the items from one of Eaton's descendants.
If this sounds wrong, well, that's because it is.
The auction house has issued a statement that basically says that the seller can't afford to donate these things.
Really? I find it hard to sympathize with the financial plight of the seller when compared to the Japanese Americans who created these items in the first place. They couldn't afford to lose their homes, farms, and businesses. But they did. Many lost everything and still fought in Germany, losing arms and legs and lives. Their suffering, their sacrifice, shouldn't be someone else's payday.
These items should be donated to a museum, or given back to the artists and their familes. Anything else is just adding insult to injury. And an exhaustive list of organizations and individuals agree.
To sell these items to the highest bidder is shameless, to make museums and family members bid against each other is greedy, and for an auction house to profit via sellers' fees and buyers' premiums on items created beneath a cloud of injustice is culturally illiterate at best and morally reprehensible at worst.
To learn more about this auction and how to stop it, please visit this Facebook group.
I finally spoke with Tom Martin at Rago Auctions. He expressed his shock and awe that people feel so strongly about this auction (but that he is powerless to change anything).
He also said that he had no idea 120,000 people had been incarcerated, that people were born in camps, died in camps. (And again, he's totally helpless).
Face it, this is an extremely reputable institution (heck, David Rago is on Antiques Roadshow) but on this subject they're culturally tone-deaf in both ears. Tom was proud of their press in the New York Times. But there was no outreach on the West Coast, the area affected by the Internment. And they contacted the Smithsonian and the California Historical Society, but not any Japanese newspapers, museums, or foundations. (Also, the water-colors and oil paintings in the auction are from a prison camp in Wyoming, so the California Historical Society might be off by a few states).
Oh, and did I mention that he's also incredibly powerless to do anything?
Sorry for the snark, kids, but I took his repeated apologies of powerlessness to mean "I don't care enough to do anything, or even try."
Well, now that THOUSANDS of people are calling on Rago Auctions to halt the sale of these items, including a petition at Change.org, and Eric L. Muller, the historian who wrote the auction's catalog copy (and whom I admire) has cancelled his lecture at the auction house this week, maybe--just maybe, someone with authority will care enough to do the right thing. C'mon Rago Auctions, you can do it.
In the meantime, here's an article in tonight's Sacramento Bee: Japanese Americans protest auction of internment camp art. And a follow up piece in the NYT: Auction of Art Made by Japanese-Americans in Internment Camps Sparks Protest. Also, Rafu Shipo weighs in: Community leaders protest auction of JA camp artifacts.