Lori Matsumura joked that she missed the art gene that works in her family.
His grandfather, Giichi, used watercolors to document life at the Manzanar War Relocation Center where he and his family were incarcerated during World War II. Her father, Masaru, made wooden bird pins there which she keeps at her home in Stevenson Ranch.
6:05 p.m., April 08, 2021A previous version of this article misspelled Matsumura as Matsumara. He also incorrectly stated the bids for the sketches. The starting bid was around $ 50 and the closing bid was just over $ 480, no less than $ 70 and just over $ 120, respectively.
“Whenever we asked him to draw something, he was really good at it,” Matsumura said over the phone. “But we don’t have any sketches my father ever did.”
So she was understandably stunned when she discovered an eBay auction this week of 20 pencil sketches that the seller claimed were from an artist in Manzanar. The austere depictions of landscapes such as mountains, pines and Mt. Fuji seems a world away from the lonely prison camp at the eastern base of the Sierra Nevada.
Each was signed “Matsumura” in all capital letters. The starting bid was around $ 50.
“I don’t have the drawings in my hands, but it looks like my father’s handwriting,” Lori said. “I was sad that they were trying to sell this piece of art. No, that made me angry.
For decades, collectors have researched and sold similar artifacts from Japanese American WWII concentration camps: clothing, yearbooks, crafts, pottery, everything.
Activists have tried to stop such sales, arguing that they were little better than using the war to profit from a persecuted minority during one of this country’s darkest chapters.
But America’s ability to monetize human suffering has not seen a dip. During a nationwide rise in anti-Asian hatred, these articles are hotter than ever.
Right now, EBay is listing a 1945 high school yearbook from the Minidoka War Relocation Center in Idaho for $ 3,250. A women’s shirt embroidered with autographs from inmates at Poston Concentration Camp in Arizona costs $ 7,500. A booklet that documented life at the Fresno Assembly Center starts at $ 10,000 – “It’s one of those items that should be in a museum,” the list boasts.
“Seeing these objects for sale, which were rescued from an era of great suffering and loss, is a boost,” said Nancy Ukai, project director of 50 Objects, a digital history project that tells the story of stories behind American-Japanese artifacts. .
“It’s like puzzle pieces that have been thrown around, and here we’re trying to pick them up and make sense of our story,” she said.
“If we allow others to profit from injustice, it is a testament to the kind of society we tolerate,” said Bruce Embrey, co-chair of the Manzanar Committee, which hosts annual pilgrimages to the national historic site in April.
“Together, these artefacts form this extraordinary fabric, this fabric of injustice,” said President of the National Japanese American Museum, Ann Burroughs. “If they go into private collections, do [the owners] have the capacity to preserve them? Will they share them? This is not just to tell the story, but also to make sure it doesn’t happen again.
Ukai, Embrey and Burroughs joined nearly 60 Japanese American groups who sent EBay a letter asking the company to stop bids for Matsumura’s designs.
“By treating these objects as art for sale and setting a benchmark price,” the letter read, “you are fostering the perception that our history is just another commodity.”
After meeting with activists, EBay responded to the request just hours before auction closed, with the price just exceeding $ 480.
Spokeswoman Parmita Choudhury said the auction violated company policy which prohibits “the sale of items from government or from protected land.”
“We are continuing to review this issue and will take appropriate action,” she said, even as eBay still lists dozens of articles from Manzanar and other such camps.
The seller, who refused to disclose his identity, initially defied requests to remove the ad. After eBay deleted it, the seller told me that company officials “apologize for putting this item up for sale because I had no idea I was in violation of the policy. Ebay. “
The mea culpa brought little comfort to Matsumura. She ponders her options for trying to get the Manzanar sketches from her father.
“I know people are trying to sell artifacts, but I never thought it would come from my immediate family,” said the 50-year-old. “Now I’m afraid of losing them forever.”
The sale of artifacts from Japanese American concentration camps has troubled the community for decades.
Embrey, whose mother was incarcerated in Manzanar and helped start pilgrimages there, says he receives calls from people wanting to pledge items on him “every year without fail.”
“They will say, ‘My parents once wandered into Manzanar and found some knickknacks, and I want to return them to the rightful owner,” said the 63-year-old Los Angeles resident. “And they’ll say, ‘Oh, and I don’t want the money.’ Sure. “
Embrey always calmly explains to callers that he believes it is unethical to “profit from our suffering” and suggests that they donate these memorabilia to a museum, community center or university archives.
“I give them all kinds of options that don’t involve money,” he says with a bitter laugh. “I never got a response from them.”
The issue received national attention in 2015 when Ukai and others launched a campaign to stop an auction house from selling more than 400 works of art and crafts created in US concentration camps.
“Selling them solidifies and legitimizes the sale of our trauma,” she said. “We don’t want these types of sales and commodification to normalize the story and put it in the ‘Oh, they were sitting in a camp making art’ category. This is the wrong interpretation, and these sales distort the truth. “
The Japanese National Museum of America was able to acquire the collection in its entirety, displaying selections at its facilities in Little Tokyo and loaning items to exhibitions across the country.
“We know so little about where each item came from, and it’s been a tremendous crowdsourcing opportunity,” Burroughs said. “Survivors or descendants see them, and it starts conversations. It’s a feeling of collective ownership. “
Matsumura sighed when I described the current EBay listings. “I am so happy that these [Japanese American] organizations want to block things like this, ”she said. “That’s what you should do.”
It has been a few “crazy” years for his family.
In 2019, his father died at the age of 94.
Months later, hikers found the remains of her grandfather, Giichi, who died in a snowstorm on a remote mountain near Manzanar in 1945.
After being released from Manzanar, his father returned to Santa Monica with his widowed mother and three siblings and became a gardener.
He said little about his experience of the war. The first time her daughter visited Manzanar was when she went there to submit her DNA to the Inyo County Sheriff’s Office to match Giichi’s remains.
Now, the case of Matsumura’s designs could set a precedent for eBay to permanently ban future sales of Japanese Americans from incarceration artifacts.
“I understand [art dealers] need to earn a living, ”Matsumura said. “But not on that. Not in my father’s drawings.