Part I of this Article describes the WWII Japanese American evacuation from the West Coast of the United States, depicts the harsh living conditions of the internment camps, and explains the context in which the artifacts were created. It also introduces the controversial attempt to sell these artifacts. Part II discusses the Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation Board’s (Heart Mountain) advocacy efforts and introduces an alleged constructive trust created by the transfer of these artifacts from their creators to the folk arts author, Allen Eaton, upon the condition that they never be sold. Perspectives of the Rago Arts Auction house, the Consignor seller, and Japanese American advocacy groups are explored. Part II also discusses the controversial litigation initiated by Heart Mountain to prevent the sale of the artifacts, as well as online social media wars launched by advocacy groups against Rago Arts and the Consignor, which further fanned the flames of controversy. The critical legal question and theories of who owned the artwork are further discussed under New Jersey state common and constitutional law. Part III explores the ethical and legal implications of keeping and selling prisoner-made artwork. The question of whether such work is really cultural property or personal artistic property is illustrated by an analogy to a former Auschwitz-imprisoned artist’s ongoing legal battle. Finally, Part IV delineates and evaluates the subsequent negotiations between the Japanese American National Museum (JANM), Rago Arts, and the Consignor that ultimately saved the artifacts from being sold to separate parties. While JANM is the permanent home of the artifacts to date, there may be a future forum for these artifacts and other Asian artworks: a currently pending House Bill proposes to provide the first permanent national platform for Asian American art at the Smithsonian Museum.
Debra Ann Ichimura Gass,
The Art of War: How Japanese Internment Art Was Saved from Auction and Conserved for Posterity,
24 Asian Am. L.J. 49