Rare Japanese American artifacts and artworks created in internment camps during World War II and recently put up for sale in a controversial auction have instead been acquired by the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles, officials are expected to announce Saturday night.
The acquisition, to be announced at the museum’s annual fundraising gala, consists of about 450 works that had been set for auction April 17 through the Rago Arts and Auction Center in New Jersey. Tens of thousands of Japanese Americans, many former internees or their descendants, joined social media protests after hearing of plans to sell the works, some of which may have been donated decades ago with the expectation that they would be used for educational purposes, not for profit. Rago halted the sale.
Instrumental in convincing the auction house not to go forward with the sale was Japanese American National Museum board trustee and actor George Takei, Sulu in the original “Star Trek.” An outspoken activist on social justice issues, Takei said in an interview with the Los Angeles Times that he convinced Rago Arts’ founding partner David Rago to cancel the auction.
“Many of the photos picture peoples’ grandparents and parents, and there’s a strong emotional tie there,” said Takei, who as a boy was imprisoned in two internment camps with his family. “To put that 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. I talked to David Rago after the uproar, and he was very thoughtful and receptive.”
The collection acquired by the museum includes watercolors and oil paintings of life behind the barbed-wire fences of the internment camps, as well as hand-carved wood sculptures, furniture and black-and-white photographs of residents. Collectively, they depict the dark period in American history when about 120,000 people of Japanese descent, about two-thirds of whom were U.S. citizens, were forcibly moved to internment camps across the West and South in 1942. They weren’t released until after the war ended, in 1945.
Japanese American National Museum officials wouldn’t say if a donor or donors bought the collection for the museum or how much the artworks cost to acquire. Takei said he contributed money but would not specify how much. “I’ve written my check,” he said, “I contributed.”
The Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation, which represents the site of the former Heart Mountain Relocation Center and which was among the protesters of the Rago auction, estimated the collection’s maximum value at $26,900.
“The works are priceless,” said Greg Kimura, president and chief executive of the Japanese American National Museum. “To us, they’re not just pieces of art; they are deeply important representations of the longing and hope of our families -- many of whom have passed away now -- who produced these artworks while they were incarcerated behind barbed wire by their own country.”
An oil painting by Estelle Peck Ishigo depicts families arriving at the Heart Mountain center, toting luggage and huddled together as they brace against Wyoming winds. Hand-carved nameplates that once graced tar-papered barracks represent in different grains of wood the imprisoned families inside: Kubota, Higashida, Kashiwabara.
Historian and author Allen Hendershott Eaton originally accumulated the collection. During the war, he began collecting artifacts made in the camps. Many of the items were given to him by camp detainees. The works informed his 1952 book, “Beauty Behind Barbed Wire: The Arts of the Japanese in Our War Relocation Camps,” about the injustices suffered by the camp residents. Former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt wrote the forward to the book.
Eaton had hoped to curate an exhibition of the artifacts and educate the public about the plight of Japanese Americans during the war, but that never came about. His collection was passed on to his heirs and, eventually, it ended up with friends, the John Ryan family in Connecticut. The Ryans enlisted Rago, which specializes in arts and crafts, to auction the artifacts in 23 lots.
As word of the Rago auction spread weeks ago, Japanese American groups around the country pushed back in emails and petitions. A Facebook page, Japanese American History: NOT for Sale, had garnered 6,200 followers before the auction was set to take place.
Takei’s potential influence on social media, including more than 8.5 million Facebook followers, didn’t hurt.
“This collection wouldn’t be coming to JANM if it weren’t for the intervention and passion of George Takei,” Kimura said. “He stepped in to ask Rago that the auction be canceled, and, I mean, who can say no to George?”
Rago said the collection’s personal and historical significance took his company by surprise.
“Once it became evident that the community felt it would be disrespectful to bring this material to auction, we realized we had to pull this lot from the sale,” he said.
Initially, Rago said, the auction house had assumed the most likely bidders for the collection, whose value it estimated at $15,000 to $30,000, would be cultural institutions. After the uproar, he said, a few institutions offered to purchase the collection, but the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo neighborhood was the most appropriate home, Rago said.
“Their central mission is to share the Japanese American experience, and they’re based on the West Coast, where the camps were located,” he said.
Kimura described his talks with Rago and the Ryan family as amicable.
“It was an alignment of interests,” Kimura said.
The museum will assess conservation needs for the objects, each at least 70 years old. After that, JANM foresees traveling exhibitions and loans of individual pieces to other institutions.
Giving the artifacts and their story maximum exposure is key, Kimura said, “not just for Japanese Americans but people outside the community who have been inspired by the story.”
The collection speaks to the resilience of the human spirit and is the physical manifestation of a universal story, Kimura said.
“It has moral lessons for the U.S. even today,” he said. “Lessons about guarding against our worst impulses during times of national crisis, about protecting our most vulnerable communities during those times, whether racial profiling after 9/11 or immigration reform or other issues that are not just related to the past but are relevant today.”
Takei emphasized the importance for the artifacts to become “object lessons.”
“It was an egregious violation of the American Constitution,” he said. “We were innocent American citizens and we were imprisoned simply because we happened to look like the people who bombed Pearl Harbor. It shows us just how fragile our Constitution is. Now these items can be shared with a large audience.”
At the Saturday gala held at a Century City hotel, the museum was to honor Takei with its Distinguished Medal of Honor for Lifetime Achievement and Public Service.