Rare Book Monthly

Articles - October - 2013 Issue

Seward's Folly? – What Happens When a Small Institution Realizes an Old Gift is Extraordinarily Valuable?

Ed4bf1c1-033e-4453-b7b4-f90303766025

Thomas Cole's painting of Portage Falls on the Genesee.

Bequests may be thought to last forever, but as we know, nothing lasts forever. Books and other valuables left to libraries, museums, universities, and other institutions, so welcome at the time, may become burdensome years into the future. Some may no longer seem as interesting. Others may become costly to maintain. Institutions don't always last forever either and their ability to maintain collections fades as their visitors decline. On the other side, items they possess may grow in value beyond anyone's wildest dreams, making the temptation to cash out irresistible. A copy of the first book printed in America, the Bay Psalm Book, will be auctioned this fall for an estimated $15-$25 million. The Boston church that owns it sees better uses for such value than holding a small book in a safe forever. This is a story about a similar item, a painting bequested to a small institution sixty years ago. Today, it is estimated to be worth around $20 million.

 

In 1823, 22-year-old lawyer William H. Seward, recently admitted to the bar, moved to Auburn, New York. He married, went into law partnership with his father-in-law, and moved into his father-in-law's house. This would be his home the remainder of his life. Seward was a supporter of progressive causes, including education of immigrant children, prison reform (Auburn is home to a state prison), and most notably abolition. His home became a stop on the Underground Railroad. Auburn was a fast growing community at the time, its location near the Erie canal making it a good location for manufacturing. Seward became friendly with political powerhouse Thurlow Weed, which led to his being elected to the state legislature and, in 1838, Governor of New York. The following year, his friends commissioned a painting in his honor. What Seward was given was a large painting called Portage Falls on the Genesee. The artist was Thomas Cole, today generally recognized as the founder of the Hudson River School of painting. It hung in Seward's house the remainder of his life.

 

Seward would go on to have one of the most storied political careers of the 19th century. By the 1850's, he was serving in the U.S. Senate, a leading abolitionist. He joined the new Republican party and by 1860 was their leading name. He was favored to receive their presidential nomination in 1860. However, his radical views made some party members concerned about his electability, and meanwhile, an obscure losing senate candidate from Illinois was garnering a lot of attention with his speeches. The Republicans decided to go with this perhaps safer nominee in 1860. They nominated Abraham Lincoln instead.

 

The disappointment did not stop Seward from loyally serving Lincoln as Secretary of State. The assassination plot that took Lincoln's life also targeted Seward. He was stabbed several times the same day Lincoln was assassinated, but survived his wounds. He continued his service under President Andrew Johnson, defending him when he was impeached and almost removed from office. It was during this term that Seward made his greatest deal, one not much appreciated at the time – “Seward's Folly.” For the seemingly excessive sum of $7.2 million dollars, he purchased Alaska from Russia. He did not realize there was an ocean of oil beneath its surface, but he nonetheless recognized that this would one day be appreciated as his greatest achievement. He was right.

 

With the end of Johnson's term, Seward returned to his Auburn home. He died there is 1872. He bequeathed his home and its possessions to his son, Civil War Brigidier General William H. Seward, Jr. When the latter died in 1920, he passed the homestead on to his son, William H. Seward III.

 

Family inhabitance of the homestead finally came to an end with the passing of William III in 1951. He left it and most of the possessions within as a memorial to his father and grandfather. It was placed under the care and ownership of The Fred L. Emerson Foundation. Fred Emerson was a successful shoe manufacturer from Auburn who set up a charitable foundation in that community in 1932. William III undoubtedly concluded this charitable foundation would be a logical owner for the home which was to be preserved as a museum. The Emerson Foundation owned and managed the home from 1951 until 2008.

 

In 2008, it was decided best if the Seward homestead officially become a museum under New York State law. The Seward House Museum was established and all of the Sewards' assets were turned over to it, all, that is, except the Cole painting. The Emerson Foundation retained ownership of the painting. It was becoming apparent that this item was of a value far exceeding other assets Secretary Seward once possessed. However, the foundation loaned it to the Seward Museum so it could remain on the wall. The local court, in approving the transfer of property from the foundation to the museum, specified that the foundation could not transfer the painting to anyone other than the museum without court approval.

 

In February of this year, the Emerson Foundation, with the approval of the Seward Museum, removed the painting from the house. They became fearful of such a valuable item hanging on the wall of a small house-museum. Thoughts such as theft, fire, and burst pipes ran through the officers' minds as they thought of this painting, now appraised at $20 million, hanging on the wall. They took it to an unknown though presumably safe location. They thought of securing it in some sort of vault in the house, but this didn't really make much sense. The Seward House just didn't seem a logical place for such a valuable painting. Ultimately, they decided the reasonable thing to do would be to sell the painting, with half of the proceeds to go to the museum and the other half to the foundation.

Rare Book Monthly

  • <b>Bonhams, Jun 13 results:</b> Darwin, Charles. <i>On the Origin of Species.</i> Presentation Copy. Sold for $500,075.
    <b>Bonhams, Jun 13 results:</b> Darwin, Charles. Autograph Letter Signed, 3 pp, negotiating the 2nd American edition with Appleton. Sold for $21,325.
    <b>Bonhams, Jun 13 results:</b> Hemingway, Ernest. Autograph Letter Signed, 8 pp, Paris, 1924, to his father discussing Bullfighting, Stories, and his new baby. Sold for $25,075.
    <b>Bonhams, Jun 13 results:</b> Shakespeare, William. <i>Corialanus.</i> London, 1623. 1st printing [Extracted from the First Folio]. Sold for $50,075.
    <b>Bonhams, Jun 13 results:</b> Swift, Jonathan. <i>Gulliver's Travels.</i> London, 1726. 1st edition, Teerink's A edition, fine, large copy. Sold for $21,325.
    <b>Bonhams, Jun 13 results:</b> Fitzroy, Robert. Autograph Letter Signed to agent Thomas Stilwell, informing him of the progress of H.M.S. Beagle. Sold for $17,575.
    <center><b>Bonhams<br> Property from the Collection of Nicole and William R. Keck II</b>
    <b>Bonhams, Jun 13 results:</b> Shakespeare, William. <i>Sonnets.</i> 1901. 2 volumes. Printed on vellum and illuminated by Ross Turner, bound by Trautz-Bauzonnet. Sold for $13,825.
    <b>Bonhams, Jun 13 results:</b> Beardsley, Aubrey. <i>The Birth, Life, and Acts of King Arthur.</i> 1893-94. 2 volumes. Contemporary painted vellum gilt by Chivers. Sold for $5,325.
    <b>Bonhams, Jun 13 results:</b> Assisi, St. Francis. <i>The Canticle of Brother Sun.</i> Illuminated on vellum, for the Grolier Society. Sold for $7,575.
    <b>Bonhams, Jun 13 results:</b> Rackham, Arthur. <i>Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens.</i> 1/500 copies signed by Rackham. Sold for $4,825.
    <b>Bonhams, Jun 13 results:</b> Proust, Marcel. <i>Du coté de chez Swann.</i> 1st edition, 1st issue. Inscribed by Proust. Sold for $8,825.
  • <b>Swann Auction Galleries Aug 7:</b> Sergio Trujillo Magnenat, <i>Bogotá 1938 / IV Centenario / Juegos Deportivos Bolivarianos,</i> 1938. $2,000 to $3,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Aug 7:</b> <i>McQueen Drives Porsche,</i> designer unknown, 1970. $800 to $1,200.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Aug 7:</b><br>Joe Bridge, <i>Bignan / A Des Ailes,</i> 1921. $5,000 to $7,500.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Aug 7:</b> Graham Simmons, <i>The Army Isn’t All Work,</i> 1919. $1,000 to $1,500.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Aug 7:</b> Leonetto Cappiello, <i>Je ne fume que le nil,</i> 1912. $800 to $1,200.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Aug 7:</b> <i>Attack of the 50 ft. Woman,</i> designer unknown, 1958. $3,000 to $4,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Aug 7:</b> Raymond Tooby, <i>Festival Guiness / Have You Tried One Yet?,</i> 1952. $600 to $900.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Aug 7:</b> Francisco Tamagno, <i>Terrot & Co. / Dijon / Cycles Motorettes,</i> 1909. $2,000 to $3,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Aug 7:</b><br>A. Hori, Oakland / General Motors, circa 1925. $3,000 to $4,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Aug 7:</b> James Montgomery Flagg, <i>Travel? Adventure? Answer – Join the Marines!,</i> circa 1918. $4,000 to $6,000.
  • <b>Lark Mason Associates, Aug 8-27:</b> Roberts, David. Twenty Lithographs of the Holy Land, 19th Century. $2,000 to $4,000.
    <b>Lark Mason Associates, Aug 8-27:</b> Declaration by the Reps. of the United Colonies of N.A. 1775. $8,000 to $12,000.
    <b>Lark Mason Associates, Aug 8-27:</b> Composer Jerome Kern personal Letters, Albums and Other. $15,000 to $25,000.
    <b>Lark Mason Associates, Aug 8-27:</b> Paine, Thomas. <i>Common Sense,</i> London 1776. $8,000 to $12,000.
    <b>Lark Mason Associates, Aug 8-27:</b> Stowe, Harriet Beecher. <i>Uncle Tom’s Cabin,</i> Cleveland 1852. $4,000 to $6,000.
    <b>Lark Mason Associates, Aug 8-27:</b> Hobbes, Thomas. <i>Leviathan,</i> 3rd edition, London 1651. $2,000 to $3,000.
    <b>Lark Mason Associates, Aug 8-27:</b> Anno Regni Georgii III. Intolerable Acts and other Bills, 1774. $15,000 to $20,000.
    <b>Lark Mason Associates, Aug 8-27:</b> Wilberforce, William. An Abstract of the Evidence, 5 Letters, and two books. $6,000 to $9,000.
    <b>Lark Mason Associates, Aug 8-27:</b> Nightingale, Florence. Notes on Nursing and Signed Letters, ca. 1860 $4,000 to $6,000.
    <b>Lark Mason Associates, Aug 8-27:</b> Tolstov, Leo. <i>War and Peace,</i> 5 volumes, 1886. $3,000 to $5,000.
    <b>Lark Mason Associates, Aug 8-27:</b> Dickinson, John. Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania, 1768. $1,500 to $2,500.
    <b>Lark Mason Associates, Aug 8-27:</b> Twain, Mark. <i>Tom Sawyer,</i> 1877 [and] <i>Huckleberry Finn,</i> 1885. $4,000 to $6,000.

Article Search

Archived Articles

Ask Questions