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Portage Falls on the Genesee

Thomas Cole's "Portage Falls on the Genesee."

In the battle over the Thomas Cole painting that the Emerson Foundation removed in February 2013 from the Seward House Museum, one point that all sides have seemed to agree on is that the state attorney general's office has the most important say in the matter of whether the artwork can be sold.

The foundation has stated its intention to sell Cole's "Portage Falls on the Genesee," estimated to be worth about $20 million. It says the Seward House Museum is not equipped to properly safeguard such a valuable work of art, and that proceeds of a sale of the painting could help secure the museum's financial future. The Seward House Museum board of directors has backed the Emerson Foundation's position.

A large portion of the public, and Seward's living descendants, have opposed the plan, saying the painting belongs in the house on South Street so the public, which the former secretary of state served for so many years of life, can view it.

In a court battle over whether a Seward descendant could have standing as an administrator of the estate and therefore attempt to block a sale, both sides agreed that the attorney general was charged with enforcing the wishes of William H. Seward III (the secretary of state's grandson) in his will. Although the state Appellate Division, Fourth Department ruled that the descendant could not be made an estate administrator, it was clear about the attorney general's role as the key decision-maker.

So what has the attorney general's office had to say about this?

"A sale of the Cole Painting by the Emerson Painting would not be permitted under the terms of the bequest to the Emerson Foundation under Article Fourth of the will of William H. Seward III."

Those words appeared in a September 2013 filing from the state attorney general's office with Cayuga County Surrogate Court Judge Thomas Leone. And they didn't just appear once. The same phrase was used four times.

The filing also asked the judge to direct the Emerson Foundation to transfer the painting to the Seward House Museum, and that the museum "accept the Cole painting and ... maintain it as part of the memorial."

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Yet as we approach the two-year anniversary of that filing, the same sad state of affairs is in place. "Portage Falls on the Genesee" is in an undisclosed, non-public location. A reproduction hangs in its place. And the public is being deprived of the ability to see a piece of art that holds a high place in our city, state and nation's history.

The status quo cannot be allowed to stand any longer. Judge Thomas Leone should grant the attorney general's September 2013 request.

And the Seward House Museum and Emerson Foundation should be planning for how it can put the painting back on display in a secure manner.

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Executive editor