The Contested Sale
The New Jersey-based auction house Rago Arts and Auction Center (est. 1988) stirred controversy with the April 2015 projected sale of 450 works of art and artifacts from the Japanese-American internment camps established during World War II. In the wake of the New York Times article announcing the auction, activists and community leaders alike banded together to ignite a social media campaign against the auction house, whose annual sales total approximately $30 million. Rago initially stood behind their decision to proceed with the sale, citing a lack of alternate options available to the client for relinquishing the items. As the New York Times reported, “A spokeswoman for Rago wrote in an email that the unnamed auction consignor, who knew the Eaton family, is ‘not in a financial position’ to donate the material to institutions and ‘did not feel qualified to choose one institution over another.’ The consignor has described the protests as a ‘social media attack’ meant to ‘bully us into compliance with their demands.’”
Meanwhile, protest groups established a Facebook page, “Japanese American History: NOT for Sale,” assembling over 6,700 followers. Critics also launched a Change.org petition, lambasting “the betrayal of those imprisoned people who thought their gifts would be used to educate, not to be sold to the highest bidder in a national auction, pitting families against museums against private collectors.” Among those issuing a rallying call for action was Japanese American actor George Takei, who helped catapult the controversy to the forefront of Japanese American cultural groups’ and foundations’ agendas–he himself was interned in one of these camps at the age of five. Eric L. Muller, Dan K. Moore Distinguished Professor in Jurisprudence and Ethics at University of North Carolina School of Law, assisted with preparing the sale catalog for Rago, and declined to proceed with a lecture planned at the auction house after learning that the consignor had refused to transfer or donate the property to Japanese-American cultural institutions. “I did not feel that I could deliver a public lecture connected to the sale in good conscience,” Muller told the ArtsBeat blog of the New York Times of the ethical quandary he faced. As the social media campaign opposing the sale gained traction and an injunction was issued from one former internment camp site, the Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation, Rago announced their agreement to cancel the auction on April 15, 2015. The auction house’s decision and underlying motivations still draw criticism from activists such as Shirley Higuchi, chairwoman of the Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation, who stresses that only after the immediate threat of legal action did Rago agree to withdraw the items from the auction block.
The ownership of the collection, comprising 23 lots, can be traced back to the 1950s. Following World War II, a number of former internees and Japanese American families donated works of art and furniture to Allen Hendershott Eaton, a historian conducting research for his 1952 book, Beauty Behind Barbed Wire: The Arts of the Japanese in Our War Relocation Camps. The objects were then handed down to an unnamed family friend of Eaton’s heirs based in Connecticut. Among the items bestowed to Eaton were unique “handmade cigarette boxes, delicate bird brooches carved of wood, intricate family nameplates, a cat figurine shaped from tree roots, and watercolors of life inside the camps, including children playing in dirt lanes and outdoor assemblies,” the LA Times reports. In an interview with NPR, Delphine Hirasuna, a scholar specializing in art created in the internment camps observes: “Here is something that gives them pride about what the[ir] grandparents created under really bad circumstances.” The emotional value of the collection far exceeds its monetary value (Rago appraised the lots for a collective estimate of around $26,000) and includes oil paintings and rare black and white photographs depicting families, internees creating works of art, and the rarely seen environs of camps in the West. Individuals born in internment camps or whose relatives experienced the tragic imprisonment of 120,000 Japanese Americans following the U.S. bombing of Pearl Harbor stand by the injustice in selling and monetizing such seminal memories and facets of history.
On May 2, 2015, the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles announced plans to acquire the hotly contested collection as a result of Takei’s efforts to halt the public sale and with the cooperation of the would-be consignor. The museum recently honored Takei, a board trustee, for his contributions with the Japanese American National Museum’s Medal of Honor for Lifetime Achievement. According to Takei, “To put [the Eaton collection] up on the auction block to the highest bidder, where it would just disappear into someone’s collection, was insensitive. The most appropriate and obvious place for the collection was the Japanese American National Museum.” Rago Arts and Auction Center presumably played a role in the amicable settlement and urged the arts community to engage in a broader discussion on related legal and ethical dilemmas facing other institutions. Its managing partner, Miriam Tucker, affirms, “The issue extends beyond what is legal. It is something auction houses, galleries and dealers are faced with regularly.”
The Rago case recalls the efforts and ethics involved in recovering other culturally significant property such as Nazi-era looted works or Native American artifacts. Marc Masurovsky, co-founder of the Holocaust Art Restitution Project, describes a certain “sensibility and sensitivity” that must be acknowledged when dealing with such works. The attempted sale of the Eaton collection also raises interesting issues regarding precedent and discretion when it comes to auction houses accepting consignments, institutions acquiring objects, or galleries purchasing works. Legality aside, ethics and public good seem to challenge the notion of a “pure transaction” involving works of art and objects of cultural heritage.
Note from the editors: On the footsteps of the positive outcome for the Eaton collection, Center for Art Law is acutely interested in the auctions of Hopi artifacts that have taken place and continue to occur in France despite the communal and legal efforts to halt those contested sales. While Rago decided, with some backing from the court, to withdraw the Eaton items from auction, Hôtel Drouot, the largest auction house in Paris, has been proceeding with the sales of Hopi relics despite public outcry.
- Change.org, https://www.change.org/p/rago-negotiate-with-japanese-american-families-to-preserve-american-concentration-camp-artifacts
- Catherine Saillant, Japanese Americans’ protests halt auction of internment camp items, The L.A. Times (Apr. 16, 2015) available at http://www.latimes.com/local/california/la-me-auction-internment-artifacts-20150417-story.html
- Deborah Vankin, George Takei Helps L.A. Museum Acquire Internment Camp Artifacts, The L.A. Times (May 2, 2015) available at http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/arts/culture/la-et-cm-japanese-american-national-museum-george-takei-internment-camp-artifacts-20150501-story.html#page=1
- Eve M. Kahn, Auction of Art Made by Japanese-Americans in Internment Camps Sparks Protest, The New York Times (Apr.13, 2015) available at http://artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com/2015/04/13/auction-of-art-made-by-japanese-americans-in-internment-camps-sparks-protest/?_r=1
- Hansi Lo Wang, Art From Japanese- American Internment Camps Saved From Auction Block, NPR (Apr. 16, 2015) available at http://www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2015/04/18/400052232/auction-of-art-by-japanese-americans-in-internment-camps-cancelled
- Japanese American National Museum, http://www.janm.org/events/2015/dinner/
About the Author: Rebecca Krishnan-Ayer received a B.A. in Art History and French Literature from Johns Hopkins University.