A detail of Sir Joshua Reynolds’ (1723-92) portrait of Omai (c. 1776).

Enjoy unlimited access: just £1 for 12 weeks

Subscribe now

The life-size painting depicts Omai, who travelled with Captain Cook on HMS Adventure to London in 1774 and became one of the earliest and most celebrated Polynesian visitors to England.

After it was painted Reynolds kept the picture in his studio until his death and it was later sold to the 5th Earl of Carlisle. For more than two centuries it passed down the family in Castle Howard in Yorkshire to the 13th Earl, who sold it at Sotheby’s in 2001 for a hammer price of £9.4m (£10.3m including fees). Dealer Guy Morrison purchased the painting possibly on behalf of Irish businessman John Magnier.

Then for the past 20 years it has been the subject of two other export blocks.

It was blocked in 2002 and the Tate raised the then £12.5m needed but the offer was refused by the owner.

After other requests Magnier put the picture on display in Dublin’s National Gallery of Ireland for six years. A temporary export licence from the UK was also refused in April 2012.

This time, the temporary export block means a UK buyer needs to raise £50m by July 10. This deadline can be extended until March 10, 2023 if a serious intention to raise funds with a view to making an offer to purchase the painting is made.

However at that price level it will prove difficult for an institution to raise such a large amount.

The £50m price is the valuation given on the export licence request by the unknown owner (it is not known if it is Magnier or a new owner) who said this “represented the current market value”. The Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art and Objects of Cultural Interest considered this and noted that although the painting had an “extraordinary status” this valuation “would be an unprecedented price for an 18th century portrait”. The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) then appointed art dealer Anthony Mould as an independent valuer who agreed the figure was a “fair market price for the painting”.

It is the joint highest value ever given to an export blocked item on a par with Picasso’s Child with a Dove (1901). The Picasso did eventually leave the UK and went to Qatar.


Pacific Islander Omai, who travelled with Captain Cook on HMS Adventure to London in 1774, depicted by artist Sir Joshua Reynolds.

The Reynolds’ depiction of Omai has been barred from export following the advice of the Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art and Objects of Cultural Interest.

The committee agreed the painting is one of the great iconic works of the 18th century and is arguably the greatest portrait by one of the greatest British portraitists.

Committee member Christopher Baker said: “This magnificent British portrait has a global resonance. It illustrates the connectivity of the world in the late eighteenth century through exploration and the spread of colonial ambitions, as well as the fascination that high profile cultural encounters inspired.

“Mai (c.1753-79) (or ‘Omai’ as he was called in Britain) arrived in London from his home in Polynesia in July 1774, aboard HMS Adventure, which formed part of Captain James Cook’s second voyage. He was regarded as a celebrity and became the focus of written accounts and images, among which this sensational painting is undoubtedly the most potent.”