A controversial portrait by Joshua Reynolds depicting the Pacific islander Omai has had a temporary export ban placed on it by the UK government. Valued at £50m it is the joint-most expensive work, along with an early Picasso painting, to be subject to export deferral since controls were introduced in the 1950s.
A UK buyer now has until 10 July to make a commitment to try to raise the money if Omai (1776) is to be stopped from going abroad (the fundraising period could then be extended to March 2023).
The UK’s Export Reviewing Committee decided that since £50m “would be an unprecedented price for an 18th-century portrait”, it would be “prudent, given its history, that the valuation be verified by an independent process”. The London dealer Anthony Mould was therefore asked to give an independent valuation and he confirmed the £50m. This was also the value given to Picasso’s Child with a Dove (1901), which was export-deferred in 2012 and bought for Qatar Museums.
Omai (around 1751-79) was one of earliest Polynesian visitors to Britain, travelling with Captain Cook in 1774. A celebrity in London, his full-length portrait was painted by Reynolds in a pose said to derive from the Roman sculpture of the Apollo Belvedere (around AD 130).
Reynolds kept Omai in his studio until his death in 1792. Four years later it was sold to the 5th Earl of Carlisle and for more than two centuries it passed down the family to the 13th Earl, who sold it at Sotheby’s in 2001, when it fetched £10.3m.
The buyer was a Swiss company called Settlements SA, which was apparently controlled by the Dublin collector and horse-stud owner John Magnier, who one year later applied for an export licence to take the painting to Ireland. Omai was then valued at £12.5m.
In an astonishing act of generosity, an anonymous private donor offered to give Tate the full sum. Tate immediately tried to buy the painting, but the owner refused, so an export licence was not granted and Omai had to be kept in the UK, ending up in a secure art storage facility.
In 2005 the owner applied for a temporary export licence to send Omai on loan to Dublin’s National Gallery of Ireland for six years. This loan gave the owner substantial tax benefits under Irish law. The painting was subsequently returned to the UK in 2011 and went back into storage in London.
The owner submitted a new permanent export application last year. The Export Reviewing Committee then deemed Omai to be of “outstanding significance in the study of 18th-century art, in particular portraiture” and “a signal work in the study of colonialism and empire, scientific exploration and the history of the Pacific”.
But at £50m the nation's key museums—Tate, National Gallery, National Portrait Gallery and National Maritime Museum—would find it difficult to make a purchase. All are facing severe financial difficulties as a result of Covid-19.
It is unclear whether the owner is still Magnier or if Omai has changed hands. And it is equally uncertain whether the owner wishes to enjoy the portrait in their overseas home or if the portrait will be put up for sale, available to an international collector.