Getty-UK Joint Purchase of "Omai" Nixed

Joshua Reynolds, Portrait of Omai, 1776. Collection of John Magnier
The Financial Times reports that the U.K.'s National Portrait Gallery contemplated a joint purchase of  Joshua Reynolds' Portrait of Omai with the Getty Museum. The idea, however, was vetoed by the lottery-backed National Heritage Memorial Fund, which has conditionally pledged £10 million towards the record £50 million purchase price (about $60 million).

Mai, as he was properly known, was a Tahitian who sailed to Britain with Captain Cook and became a celebrity of the Georgian era. The painting is one of Reynolds' few portraits of a person of color. The pose, after the Apollo Belvedere, shows the subject's tattooed hands. A group of historians called Omai "perhaps the greatest work of Britain's greatest portraitist and the first-ever grand portrait of a non-white subject."

The portrait is owned by Irish billionaire John Magnier, who has been trying to secure an export license for some time. He rejected a purchase offer of £12.5 million from the Tate Gallery. A new application for export is pending, and the National Portrait Gallery is trying to raise £50 million by March 10, 2023, to block export. Only about half the funds have been raised, and this motivated discussions with the Getty. The Getty doesn't usually comment on potential acquisitions but confirmed the NPG's statement.

In the past, "saving" an artwork for the British nation often meant thwarting a Getty purchase. In this case the NPG was willing to share display. The National Memorial Heritage Fund was not, maintaining that works bought with its funding should remain permanently on British soil. As the lead potential donor, the fund's support is crucial.

Should NPG fail to raise the funds, Omai could be sold on the international market—conceivably to the Getty, speculates the Financial Times.

More on Omai at Bendor Grosvenor's Art History News.


Anonymous said…
$50M?!! For a Joshua Reynolds? The UK is getting swindled. And if they can’t raise that amount, the'll lose the painting when they could have just shared it with The Getty for much less. The Caillebotte painting was $53M and worth it so I can’t see how they can justify that price for this.
Reynolds's monumental portrait of "Omai" is lovely, to be sure. But I certainly don't think it's worth GBP 50 million (USD 60 million). I could understand if we were discussing, for example, Gainsborough's "Blue Boy" (for which I'd gladly give GBP 50 million plus any one of my bodily appendages of which I have two or more). But the Reynolds in this case pales in comparison with the va-va-voom of that Gainsborough at Huntington.

Even when speaking particularly about Orientalist portraiture, compare Reynolds's massive Omai, for example, with the near life-size "The Moorish Chief" of 1878, oil on panel, by the Austrian Eduard Charlemont (1848-1906) at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. See the link:

Both portraits feature a Moor dressed in white, but Charlemont's variations in tonal whites are masterly beyond beyond. I'm reminded of another mind blowing manipulation of tonal whites, seen in "The Mass of Saint Basil" of 1746 by the French Pierre Subleyras (1699–1749) in the Met collection. See the link:

On the price, I know it's been eons now, but back in 2004, the Met spent a record amount for an early painting -- USD 45 million. That was for Duccio's revolutionary Stoclet Madonna, ca. 1290–1300. Even with the passage of time, I hardly think times have changed so radically that a Reynolds should cost far more than a famous Duccio. See the link:

Separately, I'm so glad that your post on "Omai" linked to a post on the Art History News web site. I don't look at it often enough. I happened to scroll down, and saw a very interesting post on an upcoming exhibition in Ghent: "Theodoor Rombouts, Virtuoso of Flemish Caravaggism" (from Jan. 21 – April 23, 2023). Most interesting, to me, was that the marquee painting used by the Museum of Fine Arts Ghent (MSK) is the Philadelphia Museum's Rombouts, "The Lute Player." At first I thought perhaps there was another version of Rombout's "Lute Player" residing in Ghent. But no, it's the Philly version. I never leave the museum without visiting that's the BOMB! See the link:
Anonymous said…
When the UK through the decades has grabbed the arts and antiquities of so many countries and cultures, it's sort of rich that they now play a game of graspy-selfish-stingy. In an era of identity politics and virtue signaling, the British elite need to show more self-effacement and generosity.
Perfidious Albion. Just ask the Irish.