Updated: Tuesday, 26 Feb 2013, 1:46 PM EST
Published : Tuesday, 26 Feb 2013, 12:05 PM EST
AUBURN, N.Y. (AP) — Descendants of 19th-century American statesman William H. Seward are angered by plans to sell a valuable painting that had hung in his central New York home for years.
The Emerson Foundation, former operator of the Seward House Museum in Auburn, announced last week in a letter to supporters that Thomas Cole's 1839 landscape titled "Portage Falls on the Genesee" had been removed and stored in a secured location.
The painting by the founder of the American art movement known as the Hudson River School was given to Seward when he was governor of New York in the early 1840s. Seward went on to serve in the U.S. Senate and was Abraham Lincoln's secretary of state during the Civil War.
In a letter sent Thursday to supporters, including Seward descendants, Emerson Foundation President Anthony Franceschelli and Seward House President Daniel Fisher called the Cole painting a "world-class masterwork." Their letter said recent appraisals had determined the artwork to be of "extraordinary value," although the officials aren't saying how much the painting may be worth. Some of Cole's artwork has sold for more than $1 million.
The letter said the foundation and museum boards determined that it was no longer "responsible or prudent" to leave the painting at the museum, where it has been for 170 years. A portion of the proceeds from the artwork's sale will be given to the museum to support its daily operations and long-term financial viability, the letter said.
About 30 people turned out at a meeting held Monday night in Auburn to hear Fisher discuss the decision to sell the painting. Some of those who attended are volunteers at the museum who said they didn't learn the painting had been removed until they received the letters in the mail.
"Everything's a secret and that's the problem," volunteer David Elkovitch told The Post-Standard of Syracuse.
Julie Pearsall, one of Seward's great-great-great granddaughters, is among the descendants who said they're angered by the sale plan.
"When I got my letter last Thursday, it was infuriating to find out that surreptitiously the painting had been removed and the parties involved had the gall to state this was a moral decision to help the Seward House," she told the Citizen of Auburn. "I'm just disgusted with the board at the Emerson Foundation and especially at the Seward House."
Seward made his home in Auburn in the house built in 1816 by his father-in-law. The mansion and its contents were left to the Emerson Foundation in 1951 by Seward's grandson, William H. Seward III.
In 2008, the foundation transferred the house, property and contents to the Seward House Museum. The only item retained by the foundation was the Cole painting, which depicts a wilderness scene in what is now Letchworth State Park in western New York.
A reproduction of the painting has been commissioned to hang in the original's place, officials said.