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In February 2013, the Fred L. Emerson Foundation and the Seward House Museum in Auburn, New York announced that they would sell a significant painting by the English-born American artist and founder of the Hudson River School, Thomas Cole (1801-1848). The sale of the work, titled Portage Falls on the Genesee (1839) is intended to benefit the institution, which opened to the public in 1955 and became a registered National Historic Landmark in 1964.

Portage Falls was given to the American politician William H. Seward while he was the governor of New York prior to the Civil War. Seward went on to serve as Secretary of State under Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson and was a dominant figure in the Republican Party during its formative years. After his death in the 1950s, his home and its contents, which included 15,000 items including books, furniture, and works of art, were donated to the Fred L. Emerson Foundation. The Foundation opened the Seward Museum in 1951 and it became a fully independent, not-for-profit institution in 2009; the Cole painting was retained by the foundation.

The work, which depicts what is now Letchworth State Park in western New York, has been on view at the Seward Museum for 170 years and not everyone is pleased with the Foundation’s decision to sell it. A group known as the Seward Legacy Preservation, which formed in April 2013, includes descendants of Seward, and is poised to fight to restore the painting to its former place in the Seward House.

Seward’s great-great-grandson, Ray Messenger, also voiced his opposition to the sale. Although he served as the president of the Seward House’s board until 2009, Messenger was shocked by the decision. On Tuesday, May 7, 2013, Messenger asked a judge to make him the administrator of Seward’s estate, the initial step in filing a lawsuit to block the sale.

Portage Falls, which measures roughly 7 feet by 5 feet, was said to be worth around $20 million dollars in 2007. If the painting is sold, the Foundation and the Seward Museum plan on splitting the profit. The painting is currently being kept in a secure storage location.

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