The National Portrait Gallery in London is attempting to raise millions of dollars to purchase a painting by 18th-century artist Joshua Reynolds, the Art Newspaper reported Wednesday.
The painting, titled Portrait of Omai (1776), was valued at £50 million ($58 million) earlier this year. It depicts Omai, a Tahitian man who became the toast of British society during the 18th century.
In March, the U.K. government temporarily barred the export of the work under a government policy that allows public institutions in the country to vie for the work if they are able to secure funding to purchase it. Institutions were initially required to secure funds by July, but that deadline was extended until March 2023.
In a statement to the Art Newspaper, a spokesperson 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 National Portrait Gallery is supportive of the crucial efforts being made to give UK institutions the opportunity to acquire this uniquely important painting for the nation to ensure it goes on public display once and for all, where it belongs. The second deferral period will give us the chance to explore a number of fundraising leads and gives potential supporters the opportunity to come forward to help stop this key work of British culture from leaving.”
The National Portrait Gallery has been closed since 2020 due to the largest redevelopment project in its history. The project is set to cost approximately £35.5 million (about $41.3 million). The museum is set to reopen in 2023.
It is as yet unclear if, or from where, the museum will secure the funds for Omai.
The painting has a rich and complicated history. As ARTnews laid out in March:
Omai was one of the earliest ambassadors from the South Pacific to visit Britain after traveling with British Royal Navy captain James Cook between 1774 and 1776. When he reached London, Omai became a celebrity figure courted among British nobles and government officials. Reynolds made the full-length portrait, which depicts Omai in traditional Tahitian garb, in a classical pose modeled after the Roman sculpture Apollo Belvedere.
Reynolds owned the portrait until his death in 1792. It was eventually bought by the 5th Earl of Carlisle and was passed down through the family’s descendants for more than 200 years. In 2001, the last royal family member to own the work, the 13th Earl, sold it at Sotheby’s. It was purchased there for £10.3 million ($15 million) by Irish horse-racing magnate John Magnier, who appeared on ARTnews‘s 2021 Top 200 Collectors list.
Since its sale at auction, efforts to keep the painting in the nation have been ongoing. In 2005, the Tate attempted to acquire the painting with funds from an anonymous donor, but was unsuccessful in purchasing it when Mangier refused to put it up for sale. The same year, Magnier applied for an export license to loan Portrait of Omai to Dublin’s National Gallery of Ireland for several years. The painting was subsequently returned to the U.K. in 2011. It is unclear if the painting has changed hands since then; the current owner applied for a new permanent export application last year.