The U.K. government has temporarily barred the export of a painting by 18th-century artist Joshua Reynolds. That painting, titled Portrait of Omai (1776), is worth an estimated £50 million ($65 million). It depicts Omai, a Tahitian man who became the toast of British society during the 18th century.
The portrait is one of the most valuable works of art ever to be designated with an export deferral in the U.K. Under government policy, public institutions in the U.K. will be able to vie for the work. One of them must secure funding by early July to keep the work in the country’s borders.
In a statement, the U.K.’s Export Reviewing Committee said the work was of “outstanding significance in the study of 18th-century art, in particular portraiture,” calling the painting “a signal work in the study of colonialism and empire, scientific exploration and the history of the Pacific.”
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.