The Mystery of Lot Number 106

First published: October 2014

In the Spring of 2014, an interesting piece of early Mormon Folk Art resurfaced. It appears to be a depiction of Joseph Smith. He is standing on a pyramid of steps, holding a stack of gold plates in his hands like a book. The carved wooden figure has lost a bit of his pants and his right boot, but otherwise remains in fine condition.

Who made it? What does it mean? Where did it come from? When was it made? Let’s try to unravel clues about this unique and interesting work of art.

The auction took place at Fontaines Auction Gallery in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, on March 23, 2013. The catalog gave a few bits of information about the artist and the artwork, but not much. Here is the full catalog description of Lot 106, “Mormon Folk Art Carved Figure”:

Mormon Folk Art Carved Figure. Figure has carved wood legs, arms and painted embellishments including eyes, hair and bearded face; figure is handmade with handmade clothing and holds a brass Book of Mormon in his hands. Stands on a painted yellow, stepped pyramid with hand written scriptures on the steps. Seelye was a man of the Morman [sic] church in his will he left his property, including his home in Savannah, NY, to his wife and then to the Church of Latter Day Saints. Piece appears to be all original and in good overall condition, accompanied by a portfolio of research provided by the previous owners. 16 in. high. Estimate $800-$1,200. (The lot failed to sell.)

That’s all we have to go on. The artwork appears to be unsigned. So who’s the artist? It sounds like the auction house is pointing us to some man named Seelye who lived in Savannah, New York. Savannah is a small town about 20 miles east of Palmyra, New York. Like many communities in the area, it had strong connections to the building of the Eerie Canal whose construction began in 1817. That’s not too much of a lead, is it? I suspect that all of the information cited by the auction house comes from the “portfolio of research,” but that’s unavailable. Let the Googling begin!

On February 15, 1838, Justus Azel Seelye and his wife Mehittabil Bennet Seeyle were baptized into the Church in New Brunswick, Canada. Justus was born in Litchfield, Connecticut in 1779. But there doesn’t seem to be a family connection to Savannah, New York (Wayne County). New Brunswick is above Maine, quite a ways from upstate New York. Dead end.

A man named Benjamin Seelye was born in 1779 and moved to Savannah in the 1820s. He had a son, also named Benjamin, born in Savannah in 1825. The older Benjamin married Anna Haight and had a large family who lived in Warren County, New York. I can’t find any reference to their membership as Mormons. Still, not much to go on, but the Savannah connection seems solid. I look on FamilySearch.org and discover that the Seelye clan was posthumously baptized, and the father Benjamin's temple work was completed in 1930. Can it be the same Seelye as the artist? Why would a non-Mormon create such a decidedly Mormon piece of art? Maybe the whole thing is a parody. A bearded Joseph, after all? Is it an anti-Mormon artwork?

It feels sincere though. At the base of the sculpture, the artist has carefully painted verses from the Book of Mormon. I can’t make everything out, but I can identify these two verses with the help of a keyword search on LDS.org: 

Mormon 1:4

4 And behold, ye shall take the plates of Nephi unto yourself, and the remainder shall ye leave in the place where they are; and ye shall engrave on the plates of Nephi all the things that ye have observed concerning this people. 

Mosiah 28:11

11 Therefore he took the records which were engraven on the plates of brass, and also the plates of Nephi, and all the things which he had kept and preserved according to the commandments of God, after having translated and caused to be written the records which were on the plates of gold which had been found by the people of Limhi, which were delivered to him by the hand of Limhi.

Just when I think I am hitting a wall, I come across a brief article in The New York Times printed on March 19, 1895, titled, “Left His Farm to the Mormons.” Its subtitle reads "A New-York Admirer of the Latter Day Saints Provides Liberally for the Deserving Poor of Zion.” The article is about Jesse Seelye, the son of Benjamin and Anna. Finally, a solid lead. Jesse was born January 7, 1806 in Queensbury New York. An almost exact contemporary of Joseph Smith, Jr. He died in Savannah, New York on July 13, 1894.

According to the article, Seelye, upon his death at age 87, donated his twenty-five acre farm to his wife for use during her lifetime. But afterwhich,

I give the same property to the reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, in which Joseph Smith, the son of the martyr Joseph Smith is now prophet, seer, and revelator of said Church, to be used by him in purchasing lands in the Lands of Zion, or in the region round about the Lands of Zion, for the inheritance of deserving poor saints of such Church, or the property may be used by the Bishop in any other way in building up the case of the Lord as he may see fit and just. (The New York Times, March 10, 1895, p. 29)

And there it is. The sculpture is in fact a depiction of Joseph, made by a believer, but somehow, after Joseph’s death, Seelye ends up staying in the East and aligning himself with the Reorganized Church.

The probate of the will might not have been given much space in the newspaper at all except for the coincidence that at the same time, Major John H. Gilbert of Palmyra passed away, and the newspaper recounts Gilbert’s story and connection to the Church alongside Seelye’s will.

The newspaper account describes interesting bits of LDS history that I had never heard before. Trying to find a publisher for the Book of Mormon proved difficult. Ultimately Grandin accepted the job. It was Gilbert, however, who was in charge of the typesetting and presswork.

Again, from the Times article:

After the first day’s trial he found the manuscript in so imperfect a condition, especially in regard to grammar, that he declined to obey the “command,” which had been given by the Mormons that no alterations whatever be made, and he so announced to Smith and his party. After much expostulation he was given a limited discretion in the matter of spelling, grammar, punctuation, capitalizing, and paragraphing. The Mormons kept a constant watch over the proceedings all the time at first, but finally, after about ten days, they became lax in the matter, and Gilbert secured a complete copy of the book in the original sheets. Major Gilbert was [an] authority on matters pertaining to the Mormon Bible and the period of the Mormon excitement in this county. When the “faithful” from far-off Utah visited Palmyra, he was always sought out for a personal interview, and piloted the excursionists over Mormon Hill, which they gleaned from him interesting bits of the prophet’s early life and doings in this vicinity.

The article provides a few final answers about Seelye. “Mr. Seelye was one of the pillars of the Mormon Church, and was a disciple of the late Joseph Smith until death."

I think the mystery is solved. This lovely folk art piece was created by Jesse Seelye (1806-1894) sometime in the 19th century as an homage to Joseph Smith, whom he revered.