15 March 2022



The British government has banned from export Sir Joshua Reynolds portrait of Omai, a Polynesian. The painting is valued at £50 million.

Omai was from Raiatea. He traveled with Captain Cook and came to England in 1774. He met King George III, and other British notables. There is a difference of scholarly opinion about whether or not Sir Joshua was commissioned to paint the portrait.

Reynolds exhibited the painting at the Royal Academy in 1776. When Reynolds died in 1892, the portrait of Omai was still in his studio. It was sold by the well-known British art dealer Michael Bryan to Frederick Howard and exhibited at Castle Howard.

In 2001, it was bought by John Magnier of Ireland for £12.5 million. The Tate tried to buy it, but Magnier would not sell it. So, the U.K. government blocked the painting’s export and Omai is in storage in the U.K. It is not known whether Magnier still owns Omai.

Eventually, the British government granted a temporary export license so the painting could be shown at the National Gallery of Ireland for six years. Then, the painting went back to London.

There is an oil preparatory sketch for the painting at the Yale University Art Gallery and preparatory pencil sketch at the National Library of Australia.

The British Export Reviewing Committee said, “The outstanding 18th century Portrait of Omai by Sir Joshua Reynolds exemplifies the importance of the export bar process. This stunning painting is impressive for its scale, its attention to detail, and the valuable insights it provides into the society into which Reynolds painted it.”

Sir Joshua Reynolds, Omai (1776) oil on canvas,
90 x 57 inches (230 x 140 cm) private collection.