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Selling of painting causing friction at Seward House

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CNY/NNY/S. Tier: Selling of painting causing friction at Seward House
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As Lincoln's Secretary of State, William H. Seward of Auburn helped to guide the nation through a Civil War. Now, a war of words has broken out involving his home and his descendants. More than 60 years ago, his house in Auburn and all of the contents were handed over by his grandson to the Emerson Foundation. YNN's Bill Carey says it's a decision by the foundation that has Seward's remaining family on the war path.

AUBURN, N.Y. -- It was five years ago that the Emerson Foundation, with the approval of a surrogate court, decided to spin off the Seward House Museum as a separate group.

“For the organization to have access to other funds, from the government and other public foundations, we needed to be independent of the Emerson Foundation,” said Dan Fisher, Seward House Museum Board of Trustees President.

But while it handed over ownership of the house and contents to the new board, Emerson retained ownership of one item: A Thomas Cole painting called "Portage Falls on the Genesee." They thought the painting might prove very valuable. And they were right. It may be worth as much as a million dollars.

The foundation and the Seward House board decided it could not stay in the museum.

Fisher said, “We do have some valuable items in the museum, but they don't come anywhere near approaching the value of the painting. And if you go to an art gallery, there's a much higher standard of protection for events, fire, water leaking, all kinds of things, that we just don't have in the Seward House.”

Controversy erupted when the Emerson group decided it would sell the Cole painting. Seward descendants complained bitterly. One called it "an outrage and betrayal."

Great-great grandson Ray Messenger charging the foundation has "abandoned philanthropy in favor of return on investment." He urged the community to protest, calling the sale "a mockery of Seward's work and legacy."

The man in charge of the museum board says the complaints are not unexpected.

“It's a beautiful painting and it has been attached to the house for 150 years. So there is a lot of pent up passion and emotion around this,” Fisher said.

This debate over the sale of the Seward House painting is not over yet. A surrogate court, the same court that approved the split off of the museum into a separate organization, must still rule on allowing that sale to go forward.

At Seward House, there are no second thoughts.

“We've been working on this thing a long time. We've considered all the factors. Many ways of looking at it. We're locked in. We're in lock step. We've made a decision and we're together,” Fisher said.

The sale is still on.

The Emerson Foundation says a portion of the proceeds from the sale of the Thomas Cole painting will be used to commission a reproduction to hang in the Seward House. Some of the money taken in will also go toward continued operation of the museum.

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