National Portrait Gallery unveils plan to share historic £50m painting between two countries
The National Portrait Gallery has unveiled plans to share ownership of Sir Joshua Reynolds’ £50m painting the Portrait of Omai.
The historic work is one of the earliest great portraits of a person of colour and depicts the first Polynesian to visit Britain.
London’s National Portrait Gallery and the Los Angeles-based Getty Museum intend to enter a joint ownership agreement, and in both locations, the public will be able to view the work free of charge.
The announcement follows secret talks by the partners to jointly buy the painting, revealed by The Independent.
A temporary export bar imposed on the 18th-century painting in March last year expired in February, but the government granted an extension to give the National Portrait Gallery time to raise the £25m needed to secure the British cultural treasure.
Each partner will contribute half of the £50m funds needed to acquire the painting. The National Portrait Gallery has raised the majority of the funding, including a significant £10m pledge by the National Heritage Memorial Fund, an Art Fund grant of £2.5m and many donations from trusts, foundations, and individuals. This leaves just under £1m remaining and the gallery is continuing to raise funds.
If successful, the National Portrait Gallery will exhibit the painting when the London venue reopens in June.
The portrait will spend equal time in the UK and US, including being displayed at the Getty Museum when Los Angeles hosts the 2028 Olympic Games.
Nicholas Cullinan, director of the National Portrait Gallery, said: “We are delighted to announce an innovative and exciting strategic partnership with Getty to hopefully become co-owners of Sir Joshua Reynolds’ majestic portrait and a joint endeavour to advance scholarship and understanding of the fascinating and complex themes the work embodies.
“The portrait is unique in both British and world culture and yet has never been in a museum collection: now it has the potential to be in two, one facing the Pacific from where Mai came, and the other only yards from Reynolds’ studio, where it was painted.
“For the Gallery, it is important that this outstanding portrait is for the UK public, and we will share it with other institutions across the country. This is a painting that should belong to all of us and we know it will mean a great deal to our combined audiences, locally, nationally and globally.
“We would like to thank the owner of Portrait of Mai for working with us so collaboratively and all those who have donated so far, for making this painting within our reach.”
Timothy Potts, the Maria-Hummer Tuttle and Robert Tuttle director of the J Paul Getty Museum, said: “Reynolds’ portrait is both an icon of British portraiture and a uniquely noble representation of a person of colour from the Pacific islands – a region that was in Mai’s day being colonised by Britain and other European nations.
“Reynolds depicts his subject in a pose at once beneficent and commanding, modelled loosely on some famous ancient Roman sculptures. The complex artistic and historical issues that this painting raises will form the basis for a joint research initiative on 18th-century British portraiture involving exhibitions, conferences, and technical investigations.
“We hope very much that this acquisition and the collaborations that flow from it will inspire other innovative models of collecting, sharing, and protecting artistic heritage across nations, cultures, and peoples.”
The 1776 portrait was bought in 2001 by Irish business magnate and former Manchester United owner John Magnier for an estimated £10m. A bid by the Tate Museum to buy the painting from Magnier, spearheaded by Sir David Attenborough, for £12.5m in 2003 failed when he refused to sell.
Known as “Omai” in England, Mai was a native of Raiatea, an island now part of French Polynesia, who travelled from Tahiti to England with Captain James Cook. He spent the years 1774-76 in London, where he was received by royalty and the intellectual elite, and became something of a celebrity. Mai returned to his homeland in 1777 and died there two years later.
The partnership has the support of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, Arts Council England, the National Heritage Memorial Fund and Art Fund.