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Reynolds Rescued

April 6, 2023

A portrait of a tan-skinned man in billowing white robes and a turban.

Portrait of Omai by Sir Joshua Reynolds

A few weeks ago, I wrote about how one of the most famous works by the British portraitist Sir Joshua Reynolds was in danger of leaving Britain after the government's export bar expired. The National Portrait Gallery in London failed to raise the £50 million necessary to purchase Portrait of Omai to keep it in the country. However, over the weekend, the NPG announced that Omai would be staying in the UK after all, but with one very big condition: it will have to spend some time in the United States.

While the NPG only raised a little less than half of the funds necessary to buy the portrait, the British government extended their export bar until June 10th, allowing the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles to come to the rescue and put up the other half. This is the first time a British museum has partnered with an international organization for a single acquisition. While museum collaborations like this aren’t exactly new, in Britain, it certainly is a novel idea. It may become a more popular way for cultural institutions to share and display works. The plan is to send the portrait back and forth between the two institutions for six months each. But while some are applauding the NPG and the Getty for their new approach to collaboration, some in Britain are upset that Omai will have to spend half the year in an American museum instead of remaining in Britain year-round. But, of course, many are also recognizing that a compromise like this was very necessary. Due to its large endowment, the Getty Museum is one of the few cultural institutions in the world with extensive funds that would have enabled them to purchase the portrait independently, as they have done in the past with several other export-deferred artworks from Britain. Moreover, I suppose sharing is preferable to losing it altogether for such a significant painting. 

But the arrangement is not set in stone yet. The National Portrait Gallery still needs to raise nearly £1 million to make up the difference, which many say should not be that big of an issue. Some, like Christopher Knight of the LA Times, claim this premature announcement is a rare but smart move to get more Brits interested in raising the remaining funds. Should the deal go through, the Portrait of Omai is expected to be displayed at the NPG when it finally reopens on June 22nd after three years of renovations.