Editorials

George Takei steps in to put internment art in right place

Yoshinori Himel and his wife, Barbara Takei, hold internment camp relics of the sort being auctioned off by New Jersey-based Rago Arts and Auctions. Himel found his mother’s photo in one of the lots being auctioned, and they are leading a national campaign to stop the sale.
Yoshinori Himel and his wife, Barbara Takei, hold internment camp relics of the sort being auctioned off by New Jersey-based Rago Arts and Auctions. Himel found his mother’s photo in one of the lots being auctioned, and they are leading a national campaign to stop the sale. pkitagaki@sacbee.com

Two years ago, a Holocaust victim’s suitcase was put up for auction on eBay. For sale with it were a striped prisoner uniform from Auschwitz, a concentration camp toothbrush and other personal items from that atrocity.

The seller, a rare coin collector, claimed that he was serving history, and that the uniform alone was worth $18,000. When the story broke in a British newspaper, Holocaust survivors and their horrified families rose up in outrage, eBay issued an apology and the disturbing items were yanked.

The sale wasn’t illegal. The auction site just believed, correctly, that profiting from oppression is morally abhorrent. Too bad that the same wisdom failed to automatically grace the seller of a collection of handicrafts and photos taken from the Japanese American internment camps during World War II.

The heartbreaking cache – ID cards and portraits, cigarette cases made from onion sack string and hand-carved name plates from internment camp barracks – was put on the block this week by an auction house in New Jersey before being withdrawn in the face of protracted backlash. The seller had inherited it from the daughter of a deceased folk art collector and amateur art historian.

As The Bee’s Stephen Magagnini reported Tuesday, the auction had prompted Japanese Americans in Sacramento to launch a national campaign to persuade the seller to donate the items to a museum. But the auction house balked, saying that the seller was “not in a position” to do that, and was offended by the pressure on social media.

Talk about nerve. After Pearl Harbor, 120,000 Japanese Americans were dragged from their homes and incarcerated behind barbed wire for no reason other than wartime paranoia. That’s offensive. Law-abiding citizens lost their homes, their businesses and, in some cases, their lives, and when the war ended and they were released, many felt so humiliated and betrayed that they couldn’t speak of the period for decades.

It was insult upon injury when their photographs showed up online, on sale to the highest bidder, along with the tidbits of art some made while their lives were passing them by in the middle of nowhere. Imagine clicking on an online auction site and finding a 70-year-old, black-and-white photo of your imprisoned mother, as did retired Sacramento civil rights lawyer Yoshinori Himel. Now imagine hearing that the seller was “not in a position” to do the right thing.

The opponents to this auction were right: It was outrageous. Unfortunately, however, it was also legal. And if history teaches us anything, it’s that, under the right circumstances, people who want what they want will push the law to its very limits and beyond.

So it was a relief when, late Wednesday, the auction house announced that the actor George Takei had stepped in as an intermediary, and that the internment camp lots would be pulled, apparently pending a search for an appropriate buyer.

The interpretive center at Wyoming’s Heart Mountain Relocation Center, where thousands of Japanese Americans from California were held, has expressed interest, and the philanthropy of Takei, famed for his work on “Star Trek,” where he played Sulu, can be counted upon.

Others should step up, too. Artifacts like these should be displayed in their historical context, and for too long, this chapter in our history has been underreported. And yes, it is too bad that the seller doesn’t appear to be entirely altruistic in his or her decision to compromise.

The relics of human suffering shouldn’t be held for ransom. But history is brutal. Getting the whole story out there – including this repellent coda – is the best revenge.

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