Save Omai! (ctd.)

August 31 2022

Regular readers will know that Sir Joshua Reynolds' Portrait of Omai has been subject to an export bar from for some months, but with little sign  a UK institution could raise the £50m required to buy the picture. Now, however, Martin Bailey in The Art Newspaper has broken the exciting news that the National Portrait Gallery is making a bid to save the picture for the UK (answering the call made by a group of art world luminaries in the FT back in June).

Back in June, I didn't think a UK institution would have the appetite, in these difficult times, to try and raise £50m for an Old Master painting. But Nick Cullinan and the NPG have proved me wrong. If they pull this off, it will be the most significant acquisition by a British institution since the National Gallery and the National Gallery of Scotland jointly bought the two 'Diana' Titians from the Duke of Sutherland in 2012 for £100m. There's no doubt in my mind the picture is worth going for, and would be a glorious addition to the new NPG when it opens again in 2023 (though, would it be easier to fundraise if the Gallery was open now?).

Where will they get the money? Martin Bailey highlights how difficult it will be (the National Heritage Memorial Fund, the normal acquisition-supporting fund, has had its budget frozen at £5m for years). Hopefully the Heritage Lottery Fund will be able to make a special grant. And really, the UK government should support it directly too, given the picture's importance - but given the cost of living crisis I can't see any Chancellor wanting to be seen diverting taxpayer's money to buy a painting of an overseas millionaire art collector.

In The Art Newspaper piece, Cullinan is mentioned as being open to the idea of working jointly with another UK institution, and the one which springs to mind of course is the next door National Gallery, which has the deepest of all UK gallery pockets (and a £200m reserve). In fact (and I don't mean this to sound as if I'm denigrating the NPG) this is in many ways a National Gallery painting. But they may be preoccupied with their Sainsbury Wing extension plans. Let's wait and see what the fundraising strategy is, but I'll certainly be supporting it, and if you can, I hope you'll consider it too.

One final word on the price - it will doubtless be mentioned by critics of the NPG's plan that the picture was sold for £10.3m in 2001, so how can it be worth £50m now? Well, the answer lies in large part that even as recently as 2001 this aspect of British history was considerably underappreciated and undervalued. We've seen a similar transformation in how works by women artists are valued and collected. 2001 seems recent, but in terms of attitudes to what makes 'great' art, it was a very long time ago.

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