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

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The picture had been blocked from export by the government with a £50m price tag to keep it in the UK.

The purchase is a “new model of international collaboration” with both parties sharing the work for public exhibition, research, and conservation care. The London-based National Portrait Gallery and the Los Angeles-based Getty Museum intend to enter a joint ownership agreement and, in both locations, the public will be able to view the work free of charge.

Nicholas Cullinan, director of the National Portrait Gallery, said: “We are delighted to announce an innovative and exciting strategic partnership with the Getty to hopefully become co-owners of Sir Joshua Reynolds’ majestic Portrait of Mai and a joint endeavour to advance scholarship and understanding of the fascinating and complex themes the work embodies.”

“Icon of British portraiture”

Timothy Potts, Maria-Hummer Tuttle and Robert Tuttle director of the J. Paul Getty Museum, said: “Reynolds’ Portrait of Mai is both an icon of British portraiture and a uniquely noble representation of a person of colour from the Pacific islands – a region that was in Mai’s day being colonized by Britain and other European nations. Reynolds depicts his subject in a pose at once beneficent and commanding, modelled loosely on some famous ancient Roman sculptures. The complex artistic and historical issues that this painting raises will form the basis for a joint research initiative on 18th century British portraiture involving exhibitions, conferences and technical investigations.”

Known as Omai in England, Mai (c.1753-80) was a native of Raiatea, an island now part of French Polynesia, who travelled from Tahiti to England with Captain James Cook. He spent the years 1774-76 in London, where he was received by royalty and the intellectual elite, and became something of a celebrity. Mai returned to his homeland in 1777 and died there two years later. 

At nearly eight feet high, the picture is well-known to the UK public and an attempt to buy it for the nation failed 20 years ago.

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.

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

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

After other requests to show the work, the Omai portrait was put 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.

£50m price tag

An export licence was applied for in 2021/2022 and the £50m valuation given on the export licence request by the unknown owner (believed to be Magnier) 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”.

The recent temporary export block was issued in March 2022 and the deadline extended twice. Following the agreement between the Getty and NPG, each partner will contribute half of the £50m funds required.

The NPG has raised the majority of the funding, including a significant £10m pledge by the National Heritage Memorial Fund, an Art Fund grant of £2.5m (the largest in its history) and donations from trusts, foundations, and individuals.

Just under £1m is remaining and the NPG is continuing to fundraise.

The partnership has the support of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, Arts Council England, the National Heritage Memorial Fund and Art Fund.