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Proposed Sale of Thomas Cole's "Portage Falls on the Genesee" Argued in Court

Betty Flood and Katlin Nash | June 16th, 2013

In May, acting Surrogate Court Judge Thomas Leone appointed the Reverend Ray Messenger, a descendent of William H. Seward, as administrator of the estate of William H. Seward III for the purpose of enforcing the will’s charitable intent.

Judge Leone heard arguments for over an hour from Messenger’s attorneys, attorneys for the Fred L. Emerson Foundation, and Christopher Wiles, a New York State assistant attorney general based in Syracuse. Messenger’s attorneys, Robert Bergan and Charles Lynch, argued for Messenger, as a representative of the Seward family, to be named administrator. They argued that the Seward family should be represented to determine what is to be done with the Thomas Cole painting Portage Falls on the Genesee.

William H. Seward was governor of New York, a U.S. senator, and secretary of state under Presidents Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson. His home in Auburn, New York, became a museum after his grandson William H. Seward III left the mansion and all its contents, including the Cole painting, to the Emerson Foundation. When the foundation transferred the home, property, and contents over to the newly formed Seward House Historic Museum in 2008, the only item it retained was the Cole painting. In February, the foundation removed the painting from the museum, intending to sell it.

In a statement regarding the ruling, the Emerson Foundation and the Seward House Historic Museum said, “While we can appreciate the court’s interest in allowing other parties to be heard, we do not believe there is any legal basis for the court’s ruling. Emerson Foundation and Seward House Museum remain committed to finding a path forward that provides for both the appropriate protection of the Cole painting and the future viability of the museum.

“Unfortunately, as we have previously stated, the efforts of those opposed to the sale of the Cole painting may result in unintended consequences that ultimately harm the future viability of Seward House Museum,” they said. “We will be evaluating our next steps in the coming days.”

Mrs. Ray Messenger said, “We are in the middle of a meeting on planning what our next step is after the appointment. We are still waiting for an opportunity to talk with our lawyers as to what is the next step. I expect to speak with them in the next couple of days.”

Originally published in the July 2013 issue of Maine Antique Digest. © 2013 Maine Antique Digest

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