Japanese American National Museum to acquire internment artifacts from canceled auction

Collection features artwork produced by incarcerated Japanese Americans during World War II.

Oil on canvas by Estelle Peck Ishigo.

The Japanese American National Museum announced that it has acquired a collection of more than 400 pieces of historical art and artifacts created by Japanese Americans who were incarcerated during World War II. Plans for the items to be put up for public auction were canceled after widespread community outcry.

Japanese American Museum Acquires Internee Artifacts

The museum worked through Rago Arts and Auction Center in New Jersey and the consignor to acquire the private collection, which includes painting, sculptures and photographs produced by Japanese Americans who were forcibly moved into internment campus during the war. Actor/activist (and museum board trustee) George Takei reportedly was instrumental in convincing the auction house not to go forward with the sale.

From JANM's press release:

Building upon JANM's already sizable collection of art and artifacts, some of which are on display as part of its core exhibition Common Ground: The Heart of Community, the new Eaton acquisitions include nameplates carved from wood that were once attached to tar-paper barracks, as well as oil and watercolor paintings by Japanese American families living in the camps during World War II. The objects tell an important story for all Americans about the creativity and resilience of the human spirit, even in the face of extreme racial prejudice. Today's announcement was made during JANM's annual Gala Dinner, which honored actor and activist George Takei with the museum's Distinguished Medal of Honor for Lifetime Achievement and Public Service. A young Takei and his family were among those incarcerated during World War II.

"I believe that through understanding comes respect, and JANM continues to take major steps forward to increase the public's understanding of a grievous chapter in American history," said Takei, chairman emeritus of the museum's Board of Trustees, and the fifth recipient of JANM's Medal of Honor. “All of us can take to heart that our voices were heard and that these items will be preserved and the people who created them during a very dark period in our history will be honored. The collection will now reside at the preeminent American museum that tells the story of the Japanese American experience."

The museum hasn't disclosed the purchase price, but the high estimate for the Eaton collection, which Rago had divided into two dozen batches, was valued at $27,900.

A work by an unidentified Japanese-American artist.

The collection had been originally acquired by Allen Hendershott Eaton, a scholar and author who wrote about the injustice of the camps in his 1952 book Beauty Behind Barbed Wire: The Arts of the Japanese in Our War Relocation Camps. He had hoped to curate an exhibition of the artifacts, but the collection was passed on to his heirs and eventually fell into the hands of the consignor, John Ryan.

When word of the auction spread, Japanese American community members mobilized and pushed back. Over 6,000 people signed the Change.org petition calling to pull the items from auction. Days before the scheduled sale, under mounting community pressure, the auction house announced it would pull the lots from auction.

You can count that as a victory, but honestly, the collection should never have been up for sale. Still, the Japanese American National Museum is clearly the most appropriate home for these items. I'm looking forward to eventually seeing them on display.

More here: George Takei helps L.A. museum acquire internment camp artifacts

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