Rago Auctions Under Fire for Sale of Japanese-American Internment Camp Art

UPDATE: After the original report, Rago Auctions withdrew this collection from auction.

By Maddie Orton
Arts Correspondent

“What you’re doing is even worse than the Nazis.”

David Rago, founder of Rago Auctions in Lambertville, has received dozens of emails and Facebook posts to that effect, thought not all as harsh. It’s all because of an auction scheduled for this Friday. Rago Auctions is set to sell hundreds of works of art by Japanese-American internees. The plan has been met with tremendous backlash.

“We thought we were doing a good thing when we took the material. If we knew there was going to be this kind of an outcry, I’m certain we would’ve handled it differently,” Rago said.

The artworks come from a collection amassed by historian Allen Hendershott Eaton while working on his 1952 book, Beauty Behind Barbed Wire: The Arts of the Japanese in Our War Relocation Camps.

According to Rago, Eaton’s daughter inherited the collection. The man who bought some of it and inherited the rest has brought the collection to the auction house. And that consignor wishes to remain anonymous to the public.

“Well my first reaction was shock and slow anger. The idea that on the auction block would be pieces of our personal history,” said Satsuki Ina.

Filmmaker and therapist Ina was born in the Tule Lake internment camp. She created a petition on to prevent these items from being auctioned.

“In the preface, in Eaton’s own words, was his intention to create a museum or to donate these objects for preservation,” Ina said.

Rago argues the consignor did a good thing by carefully preserving these pieces of history and that museums frequently acquire works via auction.

But here’s where it gets tricky. If the works were donated to Eaton for his research, then, some protestors argue, they should be donated to one or several museums and not sold.

However, according to Rago, the consignor claims to have bills of sale for some of the works, showing that Eaton in fact purchased those items.

Though no one at the auction house has seen the receipts, Rago says the receipts will be passed on to the buyers as provenance, but are not currently available.

“Had we understood that this was going to be a point of contention, we would’ve almost certainly separated the two out, had Xeroxed copies of the invoices because it’s an excellent question. At this point in the game, the auction’s in three days,” he said.

Rago says photocopying the receipts and linking them to the corresponding pieces wouldn’t be possible in this short time frame, and pushing the date back isn’t an option.

But that’s exactly what Ina is asking for.

“We haven’t had time to determine which one of those items he has a legal right to sell, we haven’t had time to make an offer that he would be considering,” Ina said. “We’d like them to delay the auction so that we could have time to organize all of the organizations that have a vested interest so that we could acquire these artifacts.”

“Well what we tried to do initially was have it pulled from the sale and just sold privately. We tried that last week, and the consignor, after reading the internet posts, said, ‘No, it’s not going to happen,’” Rago said. When asked why, Rago said, “He was angry. He was really upset by it. He thought he was bring treated unfairly.”

Adding fuel to the fire, the debate over whether potentially-interested institutions were informed of the sale, either at all or in a reasonable time frame. Additionally, he says the consigner had previously reached out to a few museums in the past, but sales had not come to fruition.

And this time around?

“There are a number of institutions that are interested. If an institution’s interested and needs help with this, they should talk to us in terms of being given more time for payment, in terms of working out what the payment need be because obviously we’re getting a percentage on this and we’re willing to work with museums and institutions,” Rago said.

The auction remains set for Friday. Both Ina and Rago want to see the collection end up in an institution. Whether that will happen, they’ll have to wait and see.