American history captured at Auburn's Seward House: Matt's Memo

Seward House in Auburn.


painting depicting Dante's Inferno now hangs on the drawing room wall that held a Thomas Cole original for the last 145 years. "Portage Falls on the Genesee" had been the centerpiece of the Seward House Museum over the last half century. Now the work of art is the centerpiece of a multi-million dollar dispute.

Tuesday morning a direct descendant of the one time close advisor to Abraham Lincoln will go to court arguing the family legacy should have a say in retaining this prized painting in Auburn's Seward House. Rev. Ray Messenger is one time Secretary of State William Seward's great, great grandson. He is understandably upset at the secretive removal of "Portage Falls."

We toured the mansion today with friends. Rev. Messenger was the highly qualified docent. He walked us through the house room after room sharing stories of Seward and his descendants. The legendary negotiator and politician greatly influenced our nation before, during and after the Civil War period. He was nearly president himself.

That painting was given to him when he was the governor of New York in 1841. It remained in the family until the 1950's when the house became a museum administered by the Emerson Foundation. Messenger has great respect for the work of the foundation with the grand exception of the confidential move it made to claim rights to the painting which has been valued at some $18 million dollars.

Messenger believes the Cole artistic work loses much of its meaning, value and relevance by being removed from that wall that has been its home for a century and a half. He is not buying the line that security is an issue. It has not been a problem for the first 150 years of hanging on that wall.

He sees it all as a poorly handled money grab. In a home that houses a remarkable collection of art, portraits, books and papers connected to Seward the monetary value of "Portage Falls" dwarfs the rest of the amazing pieces.

A judge overseeing the case should use his or her influence to encourage the right solution without a protracted legal battle. Even if there is a sale of the painting to generate funds, the money should go back into the Seward House and the painting should go back on the wall.

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