John Magnier artwork sale impasse ends in groundbreaking deal between galleries

Portrait of Mai, sold by Irish businessman and valued at £50m, was hailed as first-ever grand portrait of a person of colour

Portrait of Mai by Joshua Reynolds is prepared for public viewing by Kevin Kelly and Sheila Dooley at the National Gallery in Dublin in January 2006. Photograph: Matt Kavanagh

A celebrated masterpiece by Sir Joshua Reynolds is set to be secured for the public as part of a groundbreaking deal agreed by two leading museums in London and Los Angeles.

The UK’s National Portrait Gallery (NPG) and the Getty Museum said on Friday that they were embarking on a “new model of international collaboration” to maximise public access to Portrait of Mai (Omai). The life-size painting – which dates from 1776 and is valued at £50 million (€56.8 million) – will “periodically” travel between the UK and the US and be jointly owned by the two institutions.

Depicting a young Polynesian islander who sailed to Britain on one of Captain James Cook’s ships and became a celebrity on arrival, it is regarded as a rare example of a great 18th-century work that places a person of colour at its centre.

But the portrait’s future has been the focus of a campaign since March 2022, when its owner John Magnier, the billionaire Irish businessman and art collector, applied to sell it.


In a letter to the Financial Times last year, figures including former UK culture minister Lord Ed Vaizey and the broadcaster and historian David Olusoga said the painting was “perhaps the greatest work of Britain’s greatest portraitist and the first-ever grand portrait of a non-white subject” and “should stay in Britain”.

Ministers deferred an export licence for the work three times to allow a British institution to raise the money to buy it, although the £50 million price tag set a high bar.

Under the terms of the agreement, the NPG and Getty will each provide £25 million and share the painting equally. The NPG, which has less than £1 million left to secure, aims to display the picture in June when the gallery reopens following a big revamp, and plans a tour of the portrait to the four UK nations before it heads to Los Angeles in time for the 2028 Olympic Games.

John Magnier and the battle over the Portrait of Omai, one of Britain’s national treasuresOpens in new window ]

NPG director Nicholas Cullinan on Friday said Portrait of Mai was “unique in both British and world culture and yet has never been in a museum collection”.

“Now it has the potential to be in two, one facing the Pacific from where Mai came, and the other only yards from Reynolds’s studio, where it was painted,” he said, adding that he was grateful to Mr Magnier for “working with us so collaboratively”.

Billionaire businessman and art collector John Magnier. Photograph: Julian Herbert/Getty Images

A spokesperson for Mr Magnier did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Timothy Potts, director of the Getty, said the painting was “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 colonised by Britain and other European nations”.

If the final phase of the NPG’s fundraising is successful, it will mark the first time an export-deferred work has been jointly acquired by a UK and an overseas institution.

Other shared deals have seen works remain in the UK. The purchase of The Three Graces, a celebrated sculpture by Antonio Canova, in 1994 by the Victoria and Albert Museum and the National Galleries of Scotland followed the imposition of an export bar after the work had been acquired by the Getty.

The outstanding funds for Portrait of Mai are likely to come from a mix of public and private sources. Art Fund said it had raised £350,000 through the fundraising page on its website during the campaign.

– Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2023