In February the Seward House Museum and the Fred L. Emerson Foundation jointly announced that Thomas Cole’s landscape Portage Falls on the Genesee, 84" x 61", had been removed from the museum and was going to be sold.
The Fred L. Emerson Foundation, incorporated in Delaware in 1943, was the former operator of the Seward House Museum in Auburn, New York. In 2008, the foundation, with permission of the Cayuga County Surrogate Court, transferred the house, property, and nearly all of its contents to the newly formed and chartered Seward House Museum. According to Anthony D. Franceschelli, president of the Emerson Foundation, the organization was required to comply with the New York State Board of Regents rules governing museums. The one item from the original bequest that was retained by the Emerson Foundation is the painting by Cole.
While all objects in the Seward house hold great value, Franceschelli said, “The Cole painting is a world-class masterwork and, as a result of recent appraisals, has been determined to be of extraordinary value.”
The Cole painting depicts a wilderness scene that is now Letchworth State Park in western New York. The painting was appraised by Gurr Johns, an art dealer from New York and London, who appraised the museum collection in 2008. According to tax returns filed by the Emerson Foundation, the Cole was valued at $18 million. The painting’s appraised value in 2008 is five times the value of the Seward House Museum’s assets, which were listed at $3.6 million on the museum’s 2011 Internal Revenue Service report.
“It is a very rare and important painting,” said James H. Maroney, president and CEO of James Maroney, Inc. The Vermont fine arts dealer several years ago represented a client who had expressed an interest in buying the painting, but the foundation never decided what to do.
According to Franceschelli and Daniel Fisher, president of the Seward House Museum, “It is no longer responsible or prudent to leave the painting at the Seward House Museum. As a result of that decision, the painting has been removed from that location and placed in a secure location.” A reproduction of the painting has been commissioned and will be on display at the Seward House Museum.
According to a Syracuse.com report on February 25, a volunteer tour guide said she was walking past the museum on South Street on February 21 when she saw a truck and a police car in the driveway. Three men in uniform and three others came out carrying the crated painting.
The foundation intends to sell the painting and give “a portion” of the proceeds to the museum.
Seward descendant Cornelia Messenger Rogers wrote a letter that was read by her daughter Kitty Dates at a meeting of concerned community members. The letter stated that it was not the intent of her uncle, her grandmother, and the founder of the Emerson Foundation to sell the painting. “The Cole painting is part of the Seward legacy and belongs in the Seward house,” Rogers wrote.
William H. Seward twice was the governor of New York, represented New York in the U.S. Senate, was appointed secretary of state by President Abraham Lincoln and President Andrew Johnson, and negotiated the purchase of Alaska from Russia. His home was built in 1816 by his father-in-law. The South Street mansion and its contents were passed down through Seward family members until 1951 when William H. Seward III left the house, contents, and land to the Emerson Foundation. The foundation operated the museum until 2008 when it was chartered by the New York State Board of Regents.
New York has strict rules governing the sale of museum collections, dictating how and when museums can sell off parts of collections. Museums may dispose of pieces of collections if they meet any one of ten criteria, such as if the piece is a duplicate, the preservation and conservation costs are beyond the museum’s capacity to provide, or it’s a hazard to people or other collection items. Under the state’s rules, money received when a piece is sold is solely for the purpose of purchasing more items for a museum’s collection or for the preservation or direct care of the collection. It cannot be used for day-to-day operations such as brick and mortar or staffing.
Assemblyman Steve Englebright of Suffolk said, “Clearly the intent of the law is for objects, such as this painting, which are central to the mission of a museum. For those original objects that are culturally significant to remain in the public domain and help tell the story, in this case of a historic house, the original intention of the donor seems to me to be in the process of being subverted, so I really question both the moral and legal correctness of this proposed sale of a Thomas Cole masterpiece. I really think that one would have to go back to that 2008 moment in time to see whether or not there was a public purpose being served by that particular arrangement. I leave that to lawyers. I can tell you, though, from the perspective of the intent of the legislature, this is exactly the type of circumstances that the legislature is concerned about, where an object that is priceless culturally may have a market value that is quite high, but culturally is irreplaceable and helps tell the story of this part of New York’s history as no other object can.”
Englebright said, “The Thomas Cole painting of what is now Letchworth State Park…is not just a painting. It raised the perception, increased and enhanced the cultural value of a public perception of a property that at the time this was painted was just out in the wilderness as private land and now is in the public domain. So this is of particular importance and should not be replaced…This is plain deaccessioning, and using that logic, it appears to me, is inappropriate, when this painting is such a central part of the experience and authenticity of that museum, particularly within the context of setting this up as a loan… [It] should not have been done in order to cash it out at a later day. It’s been on a public display through all these years and is a de facto part of the collection.”
In a letter to the editor of the Auburn Citizen, the Reverend Ray Messenger of Moravia, New York, the great-great-grandson of William Henry Seward, spoke on behalf of the Seward family, stating, “Words cannot express the outrage and betrayal that I and other members of the Seward family feel at the decision of the Emerson Foundation to sell the Thomas Cole painting.
“The explanation that funds are needed to maintain the viability of the house is a testament to poor management,” Messenger said. “A study commissioned by the Emerson Foundation in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s by reputable and knowledgeable experts concluded that the Seward house was quite valuable. It laid out steps and plans that have been largely been ignored. The Emerson Foundation and the Seward House Museum Board of Trustees have abandoned philanthropy in favor of return on investment; all by selling a gift that was given in trust for its preservation.”
Assemblyman Steve Englebright is heading a bipartisan movement of several legislators in the assembly and senate to examine and clarify this recent incident.
Originally published in the April 2013 issue of Maine Antique Digest. © 2013 Maine Antique Digest