London’s art scene will likely soon be able to rejoice: a valuable portrait by Joshua Reynolds, one of England’s most famous artists, seems sure to remain in the city some of the time, albeit under somewhat unusual terms.
London’s National Portrait Gallery and Los Angeles’s Getty Museum said on Friday that they will jointly acquire Reynolds’s ca. 1776 painting Portrait of Mai (Omai), putting an end in sight for the tense race to keep the painting within England before its export ban runs out. Still, because the museums will work together on the planned acquisition, the painting will move between England and the US, and could even appear at the Getty during the Olympics in 2028.
The acquisition is not finalized yet, and there is still the possibility it will not go through if both institutions can’t pay their halves of the £50 million ($61.9 million) needed to keep the work from leaving the UK. It is known, however, that the National Portrait Gallery has nearly raised its half, and the Getty has often acquired works for greater sums, such as the $53 million it paid at auction in 2021 for a Gustave Caillebotte painting.
International joint acquisitions such as this one are extremely rare. Never before has a UK museum linked up with a US institution to obtain a work in a situation such as this.
Nicholas Cullinan, director of the National Portrait Gallery, said in a statement, “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.”
Timothy Potts, director of the Getty, called the work “both an icon of British portraiture and a uniquely noble representation of a person of color from the Pacific islands—a region that was in Mai’s day being colonized by Britain and other European nations.”
Reynolds, whose other works include his famed Blue Boy, painted this portrait at a large scale. Nearly eight feet tall, Portrait of Mai (Omai) depicts the first Polynesian to visit Britain. He spent several years in London and died in his home country in 1779.
According to the Getty, the painting was done for “personal reasons,” rather than on commission, and was housed in Reynolds’s studio until he died in 1792. Frederick Howard, 5th Earl of Carlisle, then acquired it, and it remained in his Yorkshire estate until 2001, when it was sold at auction and purchased for £10.3 million by collector John Magnier, who, with his wife Susan, has appeared multiple times on the ARTnews Top 200 Collectors list.
There has been at least one other attempt by a London institution to acquire Portrait of Mai (Omai). In 2005, the Tate museum network had tried to buy it, but Magnier declined the offer. Magnier appears to have been the owner who has now offered the painting for sale again.
The painting hasn’t been shown to the public often, and so, when it appeared on loan outside the UK, at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, in 2018, controversy ensued.
Almost exactly a year ago, the UK government barred the painting from leaving the country, in an attempt to offer public institutions the chance to purchase it. It is the most expensive work ever to be subject to an export ban in the UK. The ban has been extended three times, and is now set to max out on June 10.
The National Portrait Gallery was initially expected to raise the full £50 million sum on its own, and had struggled to do so, at first casting doubt on whether the museum could acquire in the end. In teaming up with the deep-pocketed Getty, the museum has now likely found a way to be successful in the purchase.
If the acquisition goes through, Portrait of Mai (Omai) will appear first at the National Portrait Gallery in June, when the museum will reopen after an expansion.