Months after it was reported the National Portrait Gallery needed to raise £50 million to acquire Sir Joshua Reynolds’ Portrait of Omai, it has been reported that they’ve raised half the funds and will split the purchase alongside Getty in the US, preventing the masterpiece from falling into the hands of a private buyer.
With both the National Portrait Gallery and Getty raising £25 million, the Reynolds portrait – widely regarded as his finest – is expected to be shared between galleries in the UK and the US under a shared ownership agreement.
The Portrait of Omai was previously acquired by a private collector at auction in 2001. They offered it for sale for £50m last year.
Britain’s government had put an export ban on the sale of the painting, preventing it from being sold abroad while they hoped a buyer would emerge.
Omai is dated around 1776 and depicts a young Tahitian man who was one of the earliest Polynesian visitors to Europe. He sailed to Britain with Captain Cook in 1774, following Cook’s first voyage, before returning to Polynesia in 1777, this time on Cook’s third voyage. Omai is believed to have died there two years later, aged around 26.
The portrait was sold in 1796, four years after Reynolds’s death. It went to the fifth Earl of Carlisle and was passed down through generations until the 13th Earl expressed a desire to sell it in 2001. Tate offered £5.5m, but the deal did not go through, and it sold for £10.3m at Sotheby’s instead. Now, 22 years on, it is worth nearly five times that amount.
With the NPG’s part-acquisition, the British public is expected to get their first glimpse of the work when the gallery reopens following a major renovation on 22 June.
It will then be seen at other galleries across the UK, including The Box in Plymouth.
Portrait of Omai will not go on display in the US until 2026 when it will appear in the J Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles. It will stay in the city through the 2028 Olympics.
The National Portrait Gallery’s director, Dr Nicholas Cullinan, said: “Reynolds’ majestic Portrait of Mai is by far the most significant acquisition the National Portrait Gallery has ever made, and the largest acquisition the UK has ever made, along with the Titians acquired by the National Gallery and the National Galleries of Scotland in 2009 and 2012.”
Cullinan also thanked Getty and other contributors to the £50m, praising them “for having the vision to join us in an innovative strategic partnership to ensure this uniquely important painting enters public ownership for the first time, in Reynolds’ 300th anniversary year, so its beauty can be seen and enjoyed by everyone.”
Dr Timothy Potts, director of the J. Paul Getty Museum, said: “Joshua Reynolds’ Portrait of Mai is not only one of the greatest masterpieces of British art but also the most tangible and visually compelling manifestation of Europe’s first encounters with the peoples of the Pacific islands.
“The opportunity for Getty to partner with the gallery in acquiring and presenting this work to audiences in Britain and California, and from around the world, represents an innovative model that we hope will encourage others to think creatively about how major works of art can most effectively be shared.”