History for Sale?

A proposed auction of art by Japanese Americans imprisoned during World War II ignites public outrage

On December 7, 1941, Japan attacked the United States naval base at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. The attack killed more than 2,000 Americans and drew the U.S. into World War II. In an effort that officials believed would increase national security, the U.S. government forced more than 110,000 Japanese Americans into internment camps, a type of prison. They were held there until 1945. Nearly 50 years later, the U.S. government issued an apology for this disgraceful act.

While in the internment camps, some people found comfort in making art. Recently, an auction house in New Jersey planned to sell a collection of more than 400 artworks created in the camps. The proposed auction caused public protest.

The collection originally belonged to  a man who was opposed to the mass incarceration [imprisonment]. Later, the collection passed to a family that couldn’t care for it, so they decided to sell it. “We weren’t trying to extort [unfairly take] money from anyone,” one family member explained.

Critics said it was wrong to profit from the prisoners’ work. They argue that the collection should be donated to a museum where it could be used to educate people. Nearly 8,000 people signed an online petition, which called the auction “a betrayal of those imprisoned people who thought their gifts would be used to educate, not be sold to the highest bidder.”

Public opposition won, and the auction house canceled the sale. Instead, the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles acquired the collection.

Is it ethical to sell art by people who were unjustly incarcerated? Why or why not? 

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