Portage Falls on the Genesee by Thomas Cole, and William Henry Seward, the 12th governor of New York
Portage Falls on the Genesee by Thomas Cole, and William Henry Seward, the 12th governor of New York ()

A descendant of William Henry Seward—who was secretary of state for Abraham Lincoln and a former New York state governor—is powerless for now to challenge the proposed sale of a valuable painting given to his historic ancestor by a renowned artist, an appellate court has held.

But Attorney General Eric Schneiderman is not powerless, and is fighting the same battle as the descendant to ensure that the Thomas Cole original artwork remains with the Seward family museum upstate.

The unusual dispute centers on a legendary historic figure, and an exceptionally valuable artwork given him by Cole, the father of the Hudson River School art movement. Seward’s descendants are not asking for the painting and they are not seeking proceeds. Rather, they want to ensure that the artwork is maintained by a museum.

“Portage Falls at the Genesee River” was commissioned by friends and admirers of Seward to thank him for his efforts to expand the Erie Canal when he was governor. The 5-by-7-foot oil painting hung in the Seward family home, which has been turned into a museum in the Finger Lakes, for 150 years until it was quietly relocated for security reasons last February and replaced with a museum-quality replica.

Seward’s grandson, William H. Seward III, had bequeathed the family home and its contents—including the Cole painting, now worth an estimated $20 million—to the Fred L. Emerson Foundation in 1955. In 2008, the foundation transferred ownership of the realty and its contents, with the exception of the painting, to the Seward House Museum.

The foundation now hopes to sell the artwork. Seward’s family, however, contends the painting is a centerpiece to the exhibit and wants to block the sale.

Ray Messenger, the great-nephew of William H. Seward III and great-great grandson of the former Lincoln confidante, sought an injunction to bar the sale or transfer of the painting to any person or entity other than a museum. Acting Cayuga County Surrogate Thomas Leone last June awarded Messenger letters of administration, with no objection from Schneiderman’s office, for the limited purpose of enforcing a charitable gift under his great uncle’s will.

But the Appellate Division, Fourth Department, unanimously reversed on Friday, noting that the estate was closed nearly 60 years ago and adding that there was no reason to believe that Schneiderman, who is responsible for enforcing charitable dispositions, “is not properly fulfilling his duty to protect the decedent’s wishes.” Schneiderman’s office wants the painting returned to the museum.

The Fourth Department dismissed Messenger’s petition without prejudice “to file a petition seeking appropriate letters in the event that circumstances change and it becomes appropriate and necessary for decedent’s estate to seek to participate in a proceeding or action regarding the disposition of the painting.”

Matter of the Estate of William H. Seward, 13-01858, was decided by Presiding Justice Henry Scudder (See Profile) and justices John Centra (See Profile), Eugene Fahey (See Profile), Rose Sconiers (See Profile) and Joseph Valentino (See Profile) in a three-page memorandum.

Robert Bergan, a principal in the Auburn firm of Boyle & Anderson who represents Messenger, said his client is adamant that the iconic painting was “an integral part” of the Seward House Museum and should remain part of the collection and memorial to his great-great-grandfather.

The Emerson Foundation, represented by Jon Devendorf, a partner Hiscock & Barclay, has indicated that if permitted to sell the painting, it will contribute half the proceeds to the museum. Devendorf declined comment.

William Henry Seward, an attorney, was the 12th governor of New York and, until he was upset at a Republican convention by Lincoln, the frontrunner for his party’s 1860 presidential nomination. A staunch abolitionist whose home in Auburn was a safe house in the underground railroad network, Seward’s fierce opposition to slavery probably cost him the nomination, historians say.

After Seward lost the convention to Lincoln, he joined the administration as secretary of state, becoming one of Lincoln’s closest friends and advisors. Seward was stabbed and nearly killed by one of John Wilkes Booth’s co-conspirators on the night the president was assassinated, but remained in government, serving as President Andrew Johnson’s secretary of state and facilitating the United States’ acquisition of Alaska from Russia, a transaction roundly derided at the time as “Seward’s Folly.”

Cole is considered the founder of the Hudson River School, an artistic movement that flourished in the mid-1800s and “is characterized by the realistic and detailed portrayal of American landscapes and wilderness,” according to court papers.