Seward descendant fighting plans to sell expensive painting

Heirs to Auburn's William Seward plan to go to court to stop this painting, valued at $20 million, from being sold. The painting has been pulled from Seward House for security reasons.

The great, great grandson of William Henry Seward is going to court to fight a plan to sell a painting for $20 million.

Rev. Ray Messenger argues the foundation that supports the Seward House in Auburn has no right to sell the painting. He says it is part of the Seward estate and cannot be separated from what the foundation has donated to the museum. In 2008, the Seward House became an official NY State Museum, in order to accept a $250,000 state grant to replace slate roofs at the mansion. At that point, the Emerson Foundation, which had been managing the historic house, 'gave' the assets to the House, except for the painting. A 2008 appraisal, ahead of the paper transfers, indicated its enormous value.

'Portage Falls on the Genesee' was painted by Thomas Cole, founder of the Hudson River School, landscape painting considered the first truly American art style. It was presented to the then-NY governor in 1841, a thank you from the Erie Canal Commissioner for Seward's work in getting that project started. Seward brought it to Auburn after he left Albany in 1842. Messenger says it's hung in the same place since 1868, when the mansion was expanded.

The Seward House pulled the painting down in February of this year, over concerns about its security, and that's when Messenger hired lawyers to stop its sale and get it back into the museum. He wants to get declared executor of the Seward Estate, saying the foundation acted illegally when it held the piece back from museum ownership in the 2008 transition.

The Seward House Board President, Dan Fisher, told CNYCentral by phone that 'the value of the painting overwhelms everything else,' and the board worked for over a year on the process to pull it and protect it. Fisher says sale of the painting would also ensure finances for the museum, which has a $500-thousand dollar a year budget, half of which comes from the Emerson Foundation now. He told us he would like nothing more than to have the painting's buyer donate it to the museum, and also pay to protect it.

Messenger says if he wins his court fight, he would give the painting back to Seward House. He told us he's been assured security in the museum is adequate. He also says the museum has to find new funding sources, in addition to the Emerson Foundation. "'Who else is going to give you money when they know you've got Sugar Daddy?" he asks. He says the museum proves its an economic driver for the Auburn economy, with over 13-thousand visitors annually, so others in the community should support it financially.

Rev. Messenger has both a website and a Facebook page to explain his fight and to ask for support, and donations for legal fees. They can also be contacted by email at

After tonight's 7pm information meeting at Auburn's Public Theatre, he has a court appearance scheduled for next Tuesday in Auburn, to begin the legal part of his campaign.

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