It’s official: a Joshua Reynolds portrait will be able to stay in the UK some of the time, thanks to a collaborative acquisition between Los Angeles’s Getty Museum and London’s National Portrait Gallery.
The two museums have successfully raised the £50 million ($61.9 million) needed to keep Reynolds’s ca. 1776 painting Portrait of Mai (Omai). The painting had been subject to an export ban in the UK intended to allow museums there to vie to keep it from leaving the country for good.
While the acquisition seemed almost certain to go through once the Getty got involved, many had closely watched the effort by the National Portrait Gallery to raise its portion of the funds before time ran out. The National Portrait Gallery said it had ultimately been able to do so thanks to a £10 million grant from the National Heritage Memorial Fund; £2.5 million from the Art Fund, which has never before provided a grant so large; and support from private collectors, including the Ofer family, whose members rank on the ARTnews Top 200 Collectors list.
“Heartfelt thanks too to my wonderful colleagues and everyone who worked night and day to make the impossible possible—they have done something extraordinary for all of us,” said Nicholas Cullinan, the museum’s director, in a statement. He called the painting the “most significant acquisition the National Portrait Gallery has ever made.”
Because the acquisition was finalized, it is now confirmed that the painting will be on view at the National Portrait Gallery when it reopens in June and that it will appear for the first time in Los Angeles in 2026. Reynolds’s portrait will be at the Getty during the time that the Olympic Games are held in the city.
So much attention had been paid to the acquisition because the deal was unusual and the painting is considered hugely important for art historical reasons.
At nearly eight feet tall, the painting depicts the first Polynesian to visit Britain and is, according to some, one of the earliest portraits of its kind of a person of color in Britain.
Timothy Potts, director of the Getty, said in a statement that the painting is “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.”
In 2001, the collector John Magnier bought it at auction for £10.3 million. The Tate museum network had previously attempted to purchase the work, but Magnier declined its offer.
Acquisitions shared by international museums are extremely rare, and there have only been a few other times when a US museum and a UK one undertook such a deal. Additionally, according to Cullinan, it is the “largest acquisition the UK has ever made.”