Row as rarely seen Reynolds portrait is set to go on show – in Amsterdam

John Wilson
Portrait of Omai, by Joshua Reynolds, depicts Omai, who became a celebrity as the first Pacific Islander to visit Britain. Photograph: Eileen Tweedy/REX/Shutterstock

A portrait by Sir Joshua Reynolds of a young Pacific islander who became Britain’s first black celebrity in the late 18th century is at the centre of a controversy over where it should be housed, as it emerges that the work is heading to an exhibition in a major European gallery.

Stephen Deuchar, former director of Tate Britain and now director of the Art Fund, a charity that helps museums acquire and display works, said the privately owned painting should be part of the UK’s national collection. His intervention comes as the portrait heads to the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.

The work, Portrait of Omai, finished in 1776, is at the centre of a tug of war between the Tate and Irish racing tycoon John Magnier, who bought it at auction in 2001. Last week it was confirmed that it will be one of the highlights of the Rijksmuseum’s forthcoming High Society exhibition, alongside works by Rembrandt, Manet and Velázquez. It will be the first time that Omai has been seen in public since a loan to the National Gallery of Ireland ended in 2012.

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Bloodstock billionaire Magnier paid £10.5m for the painting at a Sotheby’s sale but later, in 2003, an export licence deferral allowed a matching bid to “save it for the nation”, following a campaign spearheaded by Sir David Attenborough. Magnier refused to sell to the Tate, which had raised £12.5m thanks to an anonymous benefactor. However he was prevented, under the terms of the export licence, from taking the painting out of the UK.

Deuchar told the Observer: “Reynolds’s Omai is one of the great icons in the history of British art. It marks a key moment in the stylistic development of portraiture in the 18th century, and bears witness to the story of empire, exploration, and exploitation, too.”

Omai was in his early 20s when he was brought to Britain in 1774 as living evidence of Captain James Cook’s second South Seas exploration. The Polynesian islander charmed the court of George III with his wit and erudition, and was presented with a ceremonial sword by the king at their first meeting.

By the time Reynolds painted the portrait, adopting the classical pose of the ancient Roman sculpture Apollo Belvedere, the young man was already a superstar. His social status was confirmed when the painting was unveiled at the Royal Academy in 1776, alongside another recently completed work by Reynolds, Portrait of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire.

Deuchar believes Portrait Of Omai would play a pivotal role in the British national collection: “In public ownership, it would tell a series of stories across a range of museums – Tate, the National Gallery, the National Portrait Gallery, the Natural History Museum, and even the British Museum. I can’t think of another object or work of art of which the same could possibly be said. It truly deserves to be in one of these museums, one day.”

As director of Tate Britain, Deuchar was instrumental in the original 2003 campaign to acquire Omai, and in subsequent appeals to Magnier to allow the portrait to be exhibited in the UK.

“It’s obviously a shame that the owner, piqued by our government’s quite correct refusal to let him export it permanently to Ireland, has preferred to keep it in store rather than lend it on a long-term basis to a UK museum or gallery,” Deuchar said.

Known in the racing world as the Boss, Magnier, the owner of Coolmore stud farm in Tipperary, has a reputation as a tough businessman. He fell out with Sir Alex Ferguson when the Manchester United manager sued Magnier over breeding rights to the champion racehorse Rock of Gibraltar, which Ferguson co-owns with Magnier’s wife Sue. The case was settled out of court. Magnier owned a 28% stake in United until selling the shares to American businessman Malcolm Glazer in 2005.

Portrait of Omai was seen briefly in London as the highlight of a Reynolds exhibition at Tate Britain in 2005. A temporary export licence later allowed it to be shown in Dublin for five years. In 2012, then culture minister Ed Vaizey refused to extend the deal, saying that long-term use of temporary licences was undermining the export control system.

It is presumed that, since then, the painting has been locked in storage in the UK. The imminent reappearance of Omai at the Rijksmuseum follows a report by Art Fund and the Wolfson Foundation warning that most British museums and galleries, priced out of an inflationary art market, are unable to buy to extend their collections. Most are reliant on bequests and long loans by collectors.

Vaizey told the Observer: “I’d love to see the Omai saved for the nation. It’s a masterpiece which should be enjoyed by the millions who visit our world-class museums.”