First step in legal battle to prevent sale of Seward House painting

'Portage Falls on the Genesee' painting by Thomas Cole. A Seward descendant will have a say on whether it's sold, after a court decision in Auburn on Tuesday.

The Emerson Foundation, which has control of the $20 million Thomas Cole painting from Auburn's Seward House, issued this statement Monday evening, after the court hearing that ended in Seward descendant Ray Messenger being approved as executor of William Seward III's estate:

â??While we can appreciate the Courtâ??s interest in allowing other parties to be heard, we do not believe there is any legal basis for the Courtâ??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.

We will be evaluating our next steps in the coming days.â??

On Monday morning, a judge granted William Seward IIIâ??s heir, his great-great-grandson Ray Messenger, letters which allow him to be an executor of William Seward IIIâ??s estate.

It is a win in the fight to keep the 'Portage Falls on the Genesee' painting by Thomas Cole at the Seward House Museum in Auburn. "The next step will be to actually start a lawsuit to seek a permanent injunction," says Messenger attorney Robert Bergan. "What we're seeking is to prevent the Emerson Foundation from selling this beautiful painting."

Today's issue, in Cayuga County Surrogate Court in Auburn's Historic Post Office, did not deal with the painting itself, but rather the Seward heir's right to have a say. And the arguments got personal, with attorneys for the foundation saying that Messenger's just being a family member was not enough, and that his being involved with the estate was not enough for standing.

"William Henry Seward rarely defended himself against personal attacks," Messenger told us after the court session, "I don't see us defending ourselves against that."

'That's an affront,' was the comment from Messenger attorney Charles Lynch, who pointed out that his client was close enough to the last direct Seward descendent, William Henry III, to call him 'uncle', and that Messenger had also served as the president of the Seward House museum and has done extensive work in behalf of the Seward family.

Before Judge Thomas Leone's decision, an attorney representing the State Attorney General's interests in the museum proposed a 60 day cooling off period, but the judge said the community was already polarized over the painting, and ruled that Messenger will have a say on the future of the estate, including the valuable painting.

Anthony Franceschelli, the head of the Emerson Foundation, told us after that he's 'terribly dissapointed' at today's ruling, but there's no definite word yet, on if there will be an appeal.

The Emerson Foundation turned over four generations of Seward artifacts and memorabilia to the Seward House Museum, except for the Cole painting, when it transferred the job of operating the historic house to the Museum. The Foundation still provides the Museum a quarter million dollars a year, half of its operating costs, and says profits from the painting would give the museum a sounder financial future.

The Seward House Board President, Dan Fisher, told CNY Central last week that 'the value of the painting overwhelms everything else.' He told us he would like nothing more than to have the painting's buyer donate it to the museum and pay to protect it. Messenger told us that if he wins the court battle, he would give the painting back to Seward House. (read our story from April 29)

There's no timetable for the legal action, but the Seward Legacy Preservation group planning a fundraiser for May 16 at the Springside Inn in Auburn to raise money for expected continuing legal fees. "it's William Seward's 212th birthday", Messenger tells us.

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