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Catalogued as “one of the great icons of 18th-century art”, Reynolds’ full-length portrait of the nattily-robed Omai, a Tahitian ‘Noble Savage’ whom Captain Cook brought back to England in 1774, had been given top billing at Sotheby’s (20/15/10% buyer’s premium) November 29 afternoon sale of Important British and Irish Pictures after its owners, Castle Howard, turned down a private treaty offer of £5.5m from Tate Britain. The pre-sale estimate was £6-8m.

Eighteenth century British portraiture is not exactly one of the international art market’s more fashionable collecting areas. However, with its Castle Howard provenance and glamorously exotic subject matter, this 7ft 6in by 4ft 9in (2.28 x 1.45m) RA exhibit of 1776 was the sort of drop-dead trophy picture that would have appealed to a wide variety of collectors.

The London-based Canadian businessman David Graham is normally a collector of Impressionist art, but he took a serious shine to Omai, as did a UK collector whose bids were being taken on a mobile phone by Guy Morrison.

The duel in the room between Graham, whose French wife was trying to drag him away from the clutches of Sotheby’s Client Services, and Morrison was one of the most entertaining pieces of theatre seen in the London salerooms in recent years, until the hammer finally fell at £9.4m.

This was second highest price ever paid for a British picture after John Constable’s The Lock, which Baron Thyssen bought for £9.8m at Sotheby’s in November 1990.

After a stressed-looking Morrison left the saleroom it emerged that he had significantly exceeded the bidding limit of his unnamed UK private client who it appeared was not prepared to make up the shortfall.

Speaking to the Antiques Trade Gazette last week, Morrison commented: “I am the owner of the picture but I’m happy with it. There are interested parties. It is a little hairy, really, but I’m confident of finding a buyer.”

Suggestions that his unnamed client on this occasion was the Bath-based greetings card millionaire Andrew Brownsword were categorically denied.

However, Morrison’s post-sale jitters appear to be contradicted by Simon Taylor, deputy managing director of Sotheby’s Europe, who is confident that “there’s no problem about this purchase”.

Guy Morrison has a reputation for being an astute manipulator of the media and significantly this £9.4m ‘slip of the paddle’ took place just a few feet away of the Press corps.

Reliable sources in the trade have suggested that Brownsword will indeed be the ultimate owner of the Reynolds but that Morrison will hold it until, for sound financial reasons, it passes into the collection of a trust.
If that is the case, Guy Morrison’s body language at the sale and his tone on the telephone afterwards should win him a BAFTA award for his brilliantly convincing portrayal of a seriously stressed art dealer who has just spent £10m he doesn’t have.