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A celebrated, 19th century landscape painting is at the center of a 21st century fight over a family's legacy. The painting belonged to former Secretary of State William Seward. Now, the Seward House Historic Museum in upstate New York wants to sell it. But Seward's great-great-grandson will be in court tomorrow, trying to block the sale, as NPR's Joel Rose reports.
JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: If you saw the movie "Lincoln," then you saw William Seward. He's played by the actor David Strathairn - who really does look a lot like Seward - doing Abraham Lincoln's dirty work.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "LINCOLN")
DAVID STRATHAIRN: (As William Seward) The president is never to be mentioned, nor I. You're paid for your discretion.
JAMES SPADER: (As W.N. Bilbo) Hell, you can have that for nothing. What we need money for is bribes...
ROSE: After serving as Lincoln's secretary of state, Seward moved back to the family's mansion in upstate New York.
BILLYE CHABOT: Now, normally, on a nice day like today, we would bring visitors straight through the front door.
ROSE: Billye Chabot is the executive director of the Seward House Historic Museum in the town of Auburn.
CHABOT: There's a lot of room.
ROSE: The museum houses 15,000 items - books, furniture, art works - that belonged to Seward and his heirs. But its most famous piece is no longer on display. "Portage Falls on the Genesee" is a major work by 19th century landscape painter Thomas Cole. Ray Messenger is Seward's great-great-grandson.
RAY MESSENGER: It's probably the centerpiece of the house. Most people who come and know anything about Thomas Cole, the minute they see it go, wow.
ROSE: It's a huge painting, roughly 7 feet by 5 feet. Cole traveled to the Genesee Valley in western New York to document the natural beauty of the gorge before industrialization threatened to change it forever. The painting hung in the Seward family house for 150 years, until February when it was quietly removed to an undisclosed location. Daniel Fisher is the museum's president.
DANIEL FISHER: We're not set up to house a world-class, you know, masterwork in the museum. It's a historic house museum, and it would be not be appropriate for us to keep it.
ROSE: That's because the painting's value has exploded. In 1951, it was said to be worth $100. In 2007, it was appraised at 20 million, more than five times the rest of the Seward estate combined, according to museum officials. So a few months ago, they announced their intention to sell the painting.
MESSENGER: I think they're crazy.
ROSE: Ray Messenger was a member of the museum's board until 2009. Still, he was shocked when he heard about the decision.
MESSENGER: I couldn't believe it. It had been talked about, rumored. But I didn't think they'd do it.
ROSE: Museums are discouraged from selling off pieces of their collections, unless they're using the proceeds to add to those collections or help preserve them. But those rules do not apply here because technically, the museum doesn't actually own the Cole painting. Back in the 1950s, William Seward III - Secretary Seward's grandson and Ray Messenger's great uncle - left the family's legacy in the hands of a local charity.
TONY FRANCESCHELLI: He was good friends with Fred L. Emerson. And that's how we became to own the house and the contents.
ROSE: Tony Franceschelli is the president of the Emerson Foundation, a charity with about $75 million in assets. Franceschelli says the foundation has provided much of the Seward Museum's operating budget since the '50s.
In 2008, the house and most of its contents were officially spun off into a new, independent museum, but the Emerson Foundation held on to the Cole painting. Franceschelli says the two organizations have agreed on a plan to sell the painting and split the proceeds.
FRANCESCHELLI: It wasn't an easy decision. But it's the best thing for the Seward house and the Seward legacy to remain viable for future generations.
ROSE: But William Seward's great-great-grandson doesn't think so. Tomorrow, Ray Messenger's lawyers will ask a judge to make him the administrator of his great uncle's estate, the first step toward a lawsuit to block the sale.
Messenger says the painting was a gift to William Seward for his work on the Erie Canal when he was the governor of New York, and it won't have the same power anywhere else.
MESSENGER: It's emblematic of what Seward's work was as governor. The painting just kind of grabs all of it and sums it up. A picture is worth 1,000 words. In this case, it would be true.
ROSE: Whatever happens with Ray Messenger's case, the sale of the painting still has to be approved by a New York court and the state's attorney general. But Messenger echoes his great-great-grandfather's most famous speech about slavery when he says there is also a higher law. And he believes that one is on his side. Joel Rose, NPR News.