The National Portrait Gallery has been in secret talks with the Getty Museum in California to jointly buy the painting, but with the deadline for a UK buyer to step forward only hours away, a last-minute deal is the likely route to saving the British cultural treasure.
A source told The Independent that urgent talks are ongoing to save the painting from being sold overseas, while Nicholas Cullinan, director of the NPG, is said to be adamant to keep the painting and at least secure a deal in principle before the 10 March deadline.
The government-funded National Heritage Memorial Fund has pledged £10m to help save the work, and Art Fund has given an exceptional grant of £2.5m – the largest in its history.
Many generous trusts, foundations and individuals, alongside over 1,500 Art Fund members and supporters have generously donated, and almost half the £50m needed to save the work has now been raised.
Now, the deal hangs in the balance over a “huge donation” required from the US museum.
A number of leading artists have also now joined the National Portrait Gallery and Art Fund’s push to save the painting for the nation. Backers include the president of the Royal Academy of Arts Rebecca Salter, and sculptor Antony Gormley all calling for the painting to remain in British hands.
Art critic Mark Hudson said the “Portrait of Omai” was as important to Britain’s cultural identity as portraits of Tudor monarchs and should not be allowed the leave the country.
“When you look at what Britain has become and what Britain’s been for a couple of hundred years, this portrait is extremely significant,” Mr Hudson told The Independent.
“We’re living in one of the most multicultural countries in the world, London has been described as one of the most multicultural cities in the world and that is a very complex legacy that is not new. Britain’s multicultural legacy goes back a couple of 100 years.
He added: “It’s a very contested thing. It’s bound up with the British empire, exploration, the slave trade. It’s bound up with a lot of things that are very contentious and still very painful for a lot of people.
“But the number of images in art that represent that story are painfully few so the ones we’ve got, we can’t let go.”
Mr Hudson said the painting was a “blockbuster” piece of art that points to Britain’s cultural past. He added that although a deal between The Getty and NPG, which would see the painting spend half of its time in California and half in the UK, would be less than ideal, it was better than losing the painting.
“Shipping paintings around the world is not the best thing for them in terms of conservation,” Mr Hudson added.
The 1776 portrait was bought in 2001 by Irish horse-stud owner, businessman and former Manchester United owner John Magnier for an estimated £10m. A bid by the Tate Museum to buy the painting from Magnier, spearheaded by Sir David Attenborough, for £12.5m in 2003 failed when he refused to sell.
Jenny Waldman, director of Art Fund, said there was a “unique opportunity” to secure the painting for the UK public.
“We’re incredibly grateful to the National Heritage Memorial Fund, and the many trusts, individuals and Art Fund members who have donated,” Ms Waldman said. “We call on those who can help, to come together with us now, so that everyone will have a chance to see this work in future.”
Dr Cullinan said the NPG was doing “everything we can” to ensure the painting is saved, adding that it deserved to be seen and appreciated by everyone.
Mr Hudson added that the government should be doing “everything it can” to secure the best outcome for the painting.
Arts minister Lord Parkinson said Omai, which depicts a young Polynesian islander who sailed to Britain on one of Captain Cook’s ships, was hugely important: “This stunning painting is impressive for its scale, its attention to detail, and the valuable insights it provides into the society in which Reynolds painted it. I sincerely hope that a UK buyer comes forward to save this iconic painting for the nation.”
The Independent approached The Getty for comment.
Join our commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies