London’s National Portrait Gallery is attempting to raise £25 million (~$30.5 million) by June 10 in order to keep Sir Joshua Reynold’s life-size “Portrait of Omai” (c. 1776) in the United Kingdom. The painting depicts the first Polynesian visitor to England and explores 18th-century British concepts of colonialism. Last March, the UK issued a temporary export ban on the work, a common British practice in which the government asks its citizens to purchase “national treasures” at risk of being bought by foreigners outside of the country. The ban has now been extended through June.
The UK first prohibited the painting’s export in March 2022. Under the regulation, UK buyers must purchase “Portrait of Omai” at its £50 million ($61 million) valuation. So far, almost half of that money has been raised, with substantial £10 million ($12.2 million) and £2.5 million ($3 million) contributions from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and Art Fund, respectively. Some contemporary artists — including Antony Gormley, Richard Deacon RA, and Elizabeth Peyton — have also publicly issued their support for the cause.
The painting by Sir Joshua Reynolds, a prominent 18th-century portrait painter and the first president of the British Royal Academy, depicts Mai, the first Polynesian person to visit the UK. (The titular “Omai” represents a British mispronunciation.) Mai arrived in the country in 1774 on the ship of Captain Cook, whose early journeys to the Pacific laid the groundwork for centuries of British colonialism there. Mai helped Cook in his negotiations with Native peoples and became a British celebrity upon his arrival in the nation. He stayed for two years, traveling, engaging with aristocrats and the British court, and becoming the subject of English writers and painters. Cook had promised to help Mai assume power over the island of Ra‘iatea, but ultimately Cook broke his promise to Mai when the men returned to the Pacific.
“It illustrates the connectivity of the world in the late 18th-century through exploration and the spread of colonial ambitions, as well as the fascination that high profile cultural encounters inspired,” Christopher Baker, a member of the committee that decides export bans, said in a statement. Baker added that Reynolds’s “highly romanticised image” illustrates European perceptions and holds a special place in the evolution of the 18th-century portraiture.
“Portrait of Omai” has always been in private hands and was exhibited publicly only once, almost 20 years ago. The National Portrait Gallery’s director Nicholas Cullinan stated that the museum will display the work in June should it be successfully purchased.
Past works subjected to UK export bans range vastly. In order for a work to qualify for an export ban, the review committee must decide that the object has aesthetic or scholarly value, or historical importance to the UK. The works do not necessarily need to have been created by British artists. For example, in 2021, the UK placed a ban on an 18th-century gold tiger’s head that was looted from India. Anindya Sen argued in a Hyperallergic opinion piece that the government should have repatriated the object rather than attempt to keep it in the colonizing nation.
Other artworks currently protected by export bans include artifacts from Ancient Egypt and Medieval France, and pieces of British history including military medals, a painting by Benjamin West, and a 1792 anti-slavery poem by English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge.