Race to save historic painting Portrait of Omai by Joshua Reynolds for UK in secret talks between Getty museum and National Portrait Museum

The National Portrait Gallery is making a desperate bid to save one of Britain’s finest historical paintings as time runs out on its sale abroad.

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

(public domain)

The price tag for Portrait of Omai by Joshua Reynolds is a whopping £50 million – far more than has ever been paid for an 18th-century painting and puts a British museum on its own to buy it.

There are just two weeks left before the UK government’s ban on the sale of the painting expires on March 10 to give a British buyer a chance to step up.

The innovative scheme which would see the Getty Museum in California and the NPG make a joint purchase was the first time that a major British museum would be jointly owned and shared.

A source told the Independent that Nicholas Cullinan, the director of the NPG, was “extremely strict” as he pursued secret negotiations with the US museum, and that the deal is also dependent on a ‘huge donation’ from the National Heritage Memorial funded by the government. Foundation.

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

John Magnier, left, and Sir David Attenborough at a photo call outside Tate Britain to launch an appeal to save a portrait of ‘Omai’ in 2003


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

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

The NPG raised half of the £25 million asking price with donations from the Arts Fund and a promised £10 million provisional contribution from the NMHF, which said it would prefer the piece to be “fully accessible” to UK audiences. The CGIM is often the critical building block for saving the UK’s heritage.

Self-portrait by Sir Joshua Reynolds circa 1765


However, in the absence of any British institution able to meet the shortfall, the portrait is in danger of being lost all together. It is understood that the Getty Museum has yet to make an official request for joint ownership of the portrait.

A spokesperson for the CGIM said they were doing their best to help the NPG secure a deal: “The CGIM recognizes the great historical and cultural significance of the portrait and is looking at the best way to support the NPG in its efforts.

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

“The National Portrait Gallery looked at a range of options, one of which could be a proposal to co-own the Omai portrait with the Getty Museum, where the painting could be shared and exhibited 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 particularly important work: “This magnificent painting is remarkable for its scale, his attention to detail, and his valuable insight. It provides into the society in which Reynolds painted it. I sincerely hope that a UK buyer will come forward to save this iconic painting for the nation.”

The National Portrait Gallery and the Getty Museum


The National Portrait Gallery said it was discussing a possible joint purchase of Omai with the Getty Museum “to ensure that all options were explored to save the portrait for the nation and keep it in public ownership”.

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

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


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

A treasure trove of the UK’s literary heritage, including manuscripts from the Brontes, Jane Austen and Walter Scott, was at risk of falling into private hands before it was saved for the public when the £4 million memorial fund and Sir Leonard donated the other of the money. Asking price £15 million.

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

What is the Portrait of Omai?

Portrait of the Omey arguably the best portrait by one of Britain’s finest artists. It also has significant cultural value as the first portrait to be made 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 after Cook’s. first journey. Omai returned to Polynesia in 1777, with Cook on his third voyage, and probably died there two years later, aged about 26.

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

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