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Race to save £50m Reynolds painting showing early portrait of person of colour

Joshua Reynolds ‘Portrait of Omai’ is moved before hanging at Tate Britain (PA)
Joshua Reynolds ‘Portrait of Omai’ is moved before hanging at Tate Britain (PA)

The National Portrait Gallery is in a desperate bid to save one of Britain’s greatest historical paintings as a deadline looms for it to be sold abroad.

The race to raise the money for the artwork, which is one of the earliest great portraits of a person of colour, is at the centre of secret negotiations between one of the richest museums in the world and the NPG.

‘Portrait of Omai’, a South Sea Islander who travelled to England with the second expedition of captain Cook (Public domain)
‘Portrait of Omai’, a South Sea Islander who travelled to England with the second expedition of captain Cook (Public domain)

The price tag on Portrait of Omai by Joshua Reynolds is a staggering £50m – far more than has ever been paid for an 18th-century picture and puts it out of reach for any British museum to purchase on its own.

There are just two weeks left before a UK government ban on the sale of the painting runs out on 10 March to give an opportunity for a British buyer to step forward.

The innovative scheme which would lead to the joint purchase by the Getty Museum in California and the NPG would be the first time a major British treasure has been jointly owned and shared.

A source told The Independent that Nicholas Cullinan, director of the NPG, had been “brilliantly tenacious” in pursuing the secret negotiation with the US museum, and the deal is also reliant on a “huge donation” from the government-funded National Heritage Memorial Foundation (NHMF).

The 1776 portrait was bought in 2001 by Irish horse-stud owner, businessman and former Manchester United owner John Magnier for an estimated £10m. A bid by the Tate to buy the painting from Magnier, spearheaded by Sir David Attenborough, for £12.5m in 2003 failed when he refused to sell.

John Magnier, left, and Sir David Attenborough at a photocall outside Tate Britain launching an appeal to save the painting in 2003 (Getty/PA)
John Magnier, left, and Sir David Attenborough at a photocall outside Tate Britain launching an appeal to save the painting in 2003 (Getty/PA)

The bid to save Omai for the nation is expected to go down to the wire as there are still legal hoops NPG needs to jump through with the UK government and Getty Museum to get the deal over the line, sources said.

Under the groundbreaking deal, the portrait would spend half of its time in California and half in the UK, travelling around the country to cities including Edinburgh and Plymouth, as well as London.

Half of the £25m asking price has been raised by the NPG with donations from the Arts Fund and a provisional £10m contribution pledged from the NMHF, who said it would prefer the piece to be “fully accessible” to a UK audience. The NHMF is so often the crucial building block to saving UK heritage.

A self portrait by Sir Joshua Reynolds circa 1765 (Getty)
A self portrait by Sir Joshua Reynolds circa 1765 (Getty)

However, in the absence of any British institution able to meet the shortfall, the portrait is at risk of being lost altogether. It is understood the Getty Museum has yet to make an official application for joint ownership of the portrait.

A NHMF spokesperson said it was doing all it could to help the NPG secure funding and was hopeful the portrait would remain in the UK: “NHMF recognises the remarkable historical and cultural significance of the portrait and is looking at how best to support the NPG in its efforts.

“NHMF has made a provisional £10m offer towards the acquisition of the portrait although a final decision has not yet been made.

“The National Portrait Gallery looked at a range of options, one of which was a potential proposal for joint ownership of the Omai portrait with the Getty Museum, where the painting might be shared and displayed in London and Los Angeles.”

Arts minister Lord Parkinson said Omai, which depicts a young Polynesian islander who sailed to Britain on one of Captain Cook’s ships, was a hugely important work: “This stunning painting is impressive for its scale, its attention to detail, and the valuable insights it provides into the society in which Reynolds painted it. I sincerely hope that a UK buyer comes forward to save this iconic painting for the nation.”

The National Portrait Gallery and Getty Museum (Getty/iStock)
The National Portrait Gallery and Getty Museum (Getty/iStock)

The National Portrait Gallery said discussions had been held about a potential joint purchase of Omai with the Getty Museum “to ensure every option to save the portrait for the nation and keep it in public ownership was explored”.

The Getty Museum said while it could not comment on individual acquisitions, the UK museum’s statement was correct.

The Portait of Omai was first sold in 1796, four years after Joshua Reynolds’s death, to the fifth Earl of Carlisle. For more than two centuries it was on display at Castle Howard, as it passed down through the family to the 13th Earl before being sold to Magnier.

Castle Howard, York (Getty)
Castle Howard, York (Getty)

If the Omai joint venture is successful, it would echo the 2021 Honresfield library acquisition which involved Friends of National Libraries, the National Heritage Memorial Fund and British-American business magnate Sir Leonard Blavatnik, who gave £7.5m.

The treasure trove of the UK’s literary heritage, which includes manuscripts from the Brontes, Jane Austen and Walter Scott, risked falling into private hands before it was saved for the public when the memorial fund contributed £4m and Sir Leonard donated the remainder of the £15m asking price.

:: The fund to raise money for Portait of Omai can be found here: https://www.artfund.org/get-involved/campaigns/omai-portrait-appeal

What is the Portrait of Omai?

The Portrait of Omai is arguably the greatest portrait by one of Britain’s best artists. It also holds significant cultural value as one of the first portraits of a person of colour: the Tahitian man Mai (also known as Omai), one of the earliest Polynesian visitors to Europe, who sailed to Britain with Captain Cook in 1774 following Cook’s first voyage. Omai returned to Polynesia in 1777, accompanying Cook on his third voyage, and probably died there two years later, aged around 26.

He became an instant celebrity, meeting King George III, attending the state opening of parliament and travelling the country with Joseph Banks.