Reynolds was one of the 18th century’s leading portrait painters and was a founder and the first president of London’s Royal Academy of Arts.
His portrait of Omai is dated to around 1776. It 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.
A spokesperson for the National Portrait Gallery said: “Sir Joshua Reynolds’s Portrait of Omai is one of the greatest British portraits and a painting of singular national, and international, cultural significance.”
The Omai portrait was first 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. The Tate offered £5.5m, but the sale never proceeded.
Instead, it was sold at Sotheby’s in 2001, fetching £10.3m. Settlements SA, a Swiss company controlled by Irish collector and horse-stud owner John Magnier, was the buyer. Magnier applied for an export licence to take the painting to Ireland a year later, but it was deferred to allow a UK buyer to match the price.
Magnier refused to sell so the export licence was withheld, meaning Omai had to be kept in the UK. It was put into a secure art storage facility, likely in London.
Omai was leant to a Reynolds exhibition at Tate Britain in 2005 and then to Dublin’s National Gallery of Ireland, where it remained for six years. In 2011, it was returned to the UK and has since remained in storage.
An application was made for a permanent export licence earlier this year, at a new valuation of £50m. It was again deferred by the UK, giving UK buyers the opportunity to match the price. The £50m valuation was confirmed by two independent valuers.
If the purchase is successful, the £50m tag would mean Omai matches Titian’s Diana and Actaeon as the most expensive work ever bought by a UK museum. The Titian was acquired jointly by London’s National Gallery and the National Gallery of Scotland in 2009.
It is unclear how the National Portrait Gallery will raise the £50m, as it finishes a major £35.5m refurbishment. The National Heritage Memorial Fund could contribute, though its annual grant-in-aid is £5m a year. The Art Fund is also expected to assist. A spokesperson said: “We have been discussing how we could potentially support and campaign to save this incredibly important work.”