Rago Auction Rallies Community: A Personal Story


More than 3,000 miles separate Seattle from Lambertville, New Jersey, but the events of the past few weeks could not have hit any closer to home for local friends, family, and supporters of the Japanese American community.

Hillary Namba, a Seattle native, felt anger and pain when she learned of an auction by Lambertville-based Rago Arts and Auctions Center.  The bidding house made an early April public announcement that they would put up for auction nearly 450 photographs and items made by Japanese and Japanese Americans incarcerated during World War II.

For Hillary, the history of the American concentration camps of World War II are incredibly personal.  Her grandmother May Namba, in addition to her grandmother’s family were forcibly removed from the Seattle area and incarcerated at the Minidoka Relocation Center in Idaho’s desolate high desert.

“My grandmother has had a huge impact on my life, she’s my hero,” Hillary said. “Before she was incarcerated, she was working for the Seattle School District as a secretary and was forced to resign her position because parents at the schools thought that the Japanese American employees might try to poison the children. She was later sent to Camp Harmony and then Minidoka. She is such an inspiration because after going through all that, was involved with the JACL for many years, fought hard for redress, and has gone on countless speaking engagements sharing her story so that we may never forget what happened and never let it happen again.”

Like others, Hillary’s intimate connections to the nearly 120,000 Japanese and Japanese American incarcerated less than a century ago helped fuel a remarkable social media campaign to have Rago Auctions reconsider the bidding on these personable items. The artifacts, entered as part of a collection made by historian Allen H. Eaton, author of the 1952 book “Beauty Behind Barbed Wire: The Arts of the Japanese in Our War Relocation Camps,” were never intended to be sold for profit into private collections, but were to be used as a powerful learning tool for the general public.

Hillary was among the more than 7,500 friends, family, supporters, and general public who signed a change.org petition to have the items removed from the auction block. Her comments were also ranked as the most popular on the website.

“… The art and artifacts so coldly being sold at auction have ties to people and families in the present. People are looking at PHOTOS of their family members, art that their parents created, hand carved signs that hung outside their barrack doors, being sold to the highest bidder while ripping open the barely healed wounds of the hurt and betrayal that they have suffered at the hands of their own country,” Hillary signed.

Hillary said she felt such a strong reaction to the auction because she could see many of these items easily being made by someone in her family.

“There is so little that remains from that time that so hugely impacted our family that it would have been shocking to see it up for sale, especially without any prior knowledge of it happening,” Hillary said. “It was astounding and heartbreaking to see people identify items in the lot that were a part of their family history, I can’t even imagine how deviating and shocking that must have been to see it posted online with a dollar sign attached, followed by that panic of not knowing where it would eventually end up.”

Fortunately, the hard work, public outcry, and the national attention brought to the auction by people like Hillary, helped Rago and the owner of the collection, John Ryan, reconsider the bidding. The auction was cancelled on April 15th.  The artifacts, their fate still unknown, will reportedly find a future home at a museum or historical institution, as parties with ties to the collection continue to find a resolution.

The past few weeks have come full circle for Hillary.  She is considering attending her fifth Minidoka Pilgrimage this summer, a place where her hero, Grandmother May Namba, gained part of her identity and strong perseverance during one of America’s darkest periods.

“After this whole ordeal, every single artifact that can be recovered and used for preserving public memory is just that much more precious to me,” Hillary said.

The Namba Family next to the iconic Honor Roll sign at Minidoka Incarceration camp in Hunt, Idaho.

The Namba Family next to the iconic Honor Roll sign at Minidoka Incarceration camp in Hunt, Idaho.

Coincidently, Hillary and the younger generations of the Namba family have been preserving their own family history and making their own artifacts.  She cherishes a family photo of the Namba’s where they’re all standing next to the name of their relatives at Minidoka’s iconic Honor Roll board.

It’s a photo one could imagine that might have been lost on Friday, April 17th, had the auction not been stopped.

For updates on the Allen H. Eaton Collection and the Japanese American inmate artifacts visit the Facebook group Japanese American History: NOT for Sale.

To learn about this year’s Minidoka Pilgrimage schedule for June 25-28, visit www.minidokapilgrimage.org.