Apr 28, 2015

After local foundation objects, WWII Japanese internment camp art pulled from auction


A collection of handmade artifacts from camps, including Heart Mountain, where Japanese-Americans were detained during World World II, was pulled from the auction block April 17 after the Heart Mountain, Wyoming Foundation threatened to take legal action.

The Foundation had a moral obligation to stop the auction of 450 items from the Allen H. Eaton collection, now owned by Thomas Ryan, because it would open old, but deep, wounds of Japanese-Americans who were incarcerated during World War II, said Brian Liesinger, Foundation executive director.


Estelle Ishigo drew this sketch at Heart Mountain Relocation Center in 1942 to the depict a real blizzard that caught the Japanese incarcerates completely off guard. It's among items in a collection of artifacts that had been up for sale in an auction. This sketch is from Ishigo's 1972 book, "Lone Heart Mountain."

In late March, the foundation initially asked for the donation of the artifacts. Then it requested the private sale of the items to appropriate nonprofit organizations, and finally, for a postponement of the auction, to no avail. So the foundation and its supporters raised money to purchase the art, Liesinger said.

Rago Arts and Auction Center valued the artifacts at around $27,600. The Foundation offered Rago $50,000, but the consignor wasn't interested.

“We were absolutely flabbergasted that this generous offer was rejected,” Liesinger said, adding, “The consignor (Ryan) declined, maintaining that they did not feel qualified to determine where the collection would be most appropriately held and that a public auction, in his view, was a more appropriate course of action.”

The Heart Mountain, Wyoming Foundation was "absolutely flabbergasted" when their $50,000 offer for the artifacts was rejected, Liesinger said.

But Liesinger said the foundation made its offer with a pledge: If it acquired the collection, the foundation would bring a consortium of Japanese-American-related organizations together “to determine the appropriate, careful treatment and disbursement of the collection.”


Brian Liesinger, Heart Mountain Foundation executive director, examines a display about Estelle Ishigo at the Heart Mountain Interpretive Center. Photo by Gib Mathers
Threatening a lawsuit was a last resort, said Shirley Ann Higuchi, chairwoman of the Heart Mountain, Wyoming Foundation.

Liesinger said the foundation’s legal team contacted Rago through the Arts and Auction Center, Lambertville, N.J., to notify the center of an order to show cause.

“Rago then withdrew the pieces,” Liesinger said. “With the items no longer at threat of going to auction, there was no action to file the injunction against.”

Ryan pledged to work with Rago to create a purchase proposal. Liesinger said he hopes Ryan will keep the best interests of the collection in mind, along with due respect for the artists who created the artifacts and the people formerly incarcerated in the camps.

“The issue is still in play, but the Heart Mountain, Wyoming Foundation is hoping and praying for the best,” Higuchi said.

Eaton accumulated the collection around the end of World War II from Japanese-American confinement camps with the help of incarcerates. In 1952, he published the book, “Beauty Behind Barbed Wire,” which featured many of the items planned for the public auction. The items had been passed down to Eaton’s heirs and then to Ryan, a family friend, who decided to sell them, according to a April 15 Foundation news release.

Higuchi said she is not sure what the future holds for the art, but she wants Japanese-Americans to have the option to decide the artifacts’ home.

“The issue is still in play, but the Heart Mountain, Wyoming Foundation is hoping and praying for the best,” she said.

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