“Portage Falls on the Genesee” has been with the Seward family or in the museum that was once the home of William H. Seward—and abolitionist, governor of New York, a U.S. Senator, and Secretary State—since 1839. Seward John Driscoll, president of Driscoll Babock Galleries in New York, is quoted as saying, “This is cultural property. You do not take cultural properties and removed them from their place of origin. It just isn’t done.”
But it IS done. It is interesting how one’s viewpoint may change when one is no longer acquiring but being forced to relinquish an item of cultural importance. Such instances illuminate the stark contrast that can exist in people’s minds when it comes to issues of cultural “ownership” and repatriation.
As in many cases of cultural property “protection,” the Thomas Cole painting was removed as a precautionary safety measure; the painting could not adequately be protected in a house museum. There are innumerable cases in which this argument as been used; a popular example is the British Museum arguing that the Parthenon Marbles would not have survived if they had not been "protected"--brought to England--by the Earl of Elgin 200 years ago. Of course, it must be noted that in the case of the Thomas Cole painting the Seward Museum is choosing to deaccession and sell cultural property. An important underlying factor, however, is the question, “Who owns cultural property?”
Then again, perhaps this notion that appears to assert “what is mine is mine and what is yours is mine as well” is not quite so hypocritical; perhaps—dare we hope?—this may be a sign of shifting stance on the value of cultural property remaining in their places of origin. Last September the University of Pennsylvania relinquished the treasure of Troy back to Turkey; Yale University has returned the last batch of artifacts taken from Machu Picchu; the Getty has been returning objects to Italy for the last number of years. It does appear as if the tides are turning. Hopefully repatriation continues on this upward trend.