This glorious portrait is too precious a treasure to be lost forever from our shores

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The fate of Joshua Reynolds Portrait of Omai, one of the largest British portraits ever painted and the first major representation of a non-white subject in the country, is at stake. If this astonishing work is lost abroad – which may very well happen – once a government-imposed export bar expires next month, it will leave more than a blank spot on the wall of the National Portrait Gallery, which is making a last-ditch effort fundraiser to acquire it.

It will also expose the 70-year-old system intended to preserve art and cultural assets for the nation as unfit for purpose, able to define “national treasures” but unable or unwilling to fight to get them here hold.

The numbers speak for themselves. Two out of three precious objects deemed so historically or aesthetically important that are temporarily banned from leaving the country are nevertheless sold abroad never to be returned. In 2021-22, the Commission of Control for the Export of Works of Art and Objects of Cultural Interest – the independent body of experts that advises the government on national treasures – advised ministers to suspend export licenses for 16 objects for sale: a mechanism that supposedly to leave a breather to raise money to keep them in Britain.

However, of the 15 ministers who chose to be placed under export ban, only three were bailed out, three are still deferred – including Portrait of Omaiowned by Irish businessman John Magnier – and the other nine, including a Cézanne rated “excellent” by the commission, were or could be exported.

Of course we cannot save everything. Art acquisition, like politics, is about choice and the total value of the 15 artifacts on hold was a massive £113,829,831 – the third highest total in the last 10 years, albeit inflated by the exceptional £50 million price tag of the Reynolds portrait. (That figure, which represents a significant gain on the £10.5 million Magnier paid for the work in 2001, has been confirmed by an independent appraisal at the government’s request.)

Art funding has been slashed, and at a time of tremendous economic hardship for many, throwing money at paintings (or rather their wealthy private owners) can feel callous to the point of obscenity. Caution regarding these views at least partly explains the National Portrait Gallery’s quiet, almost apologetic campaign to raise money for Portrait of Omaialthough its director, Nicholas Cullinan, describes the painting as “one of the most important purchases we could ever make as a nation, one that will be remembered for generations to come”.

The missing piece in all of this, I suggest, is public engagement. from Reynolds Omai is a work of outstanding beauty and historical importance, shedding light on unknown stories surrounding Indigenous travelers to Britain, with its depiction of a young Polynesian man who traveled here as part of Captain Cook’s second Pacific voyage and became a national celebrity. But until now, just weeks before it could leave Britain forever, hardly anyone knew about its story or its potential loss.

'The luxury goods conglomerate LVMH donated €43 million to acquire Gustave Caillebotte's famous impressionist painting The Boating Party for the Musée d'Orsay.'

The luxury goods conglomerate LVMH has earmarked 43 million euros to acquire the famous impressionist painting by Gustave Caillebotte The rowing party for the Musée d’Orsay.’ Photo: Teresa Suarez/EPA

The Art Fund, the leading charity that secures works of art for public museums and galleries, has given the largest ever grant – £2.5 million – to try to save the portrait. But ministers have barely spoken out in favor of it, nor have others in the art world who could have given the National Portrait Gallery some cover as it sought donations in difficult times. “The government only pays lip service,” said one closely involved. “If there is no public outcry, they can claim it [the portrait] will not be missed.”

Britain is not alone in struggling to reconcile the state’s desire to preserve cultural treasures for the public with the power of the international art market. The Netherlands recently established new criteria for protected goods and introduced a national export licensing system following the loss of a multimillion-euro drawing by Peter Paul Rubens, which was sold at auction by a Dutch princess.

In Italy, any culturally significant work of art that is at least 70 years old, made by a deceased artist and worth more than €13,500 now requires an export permit to leave the country, and can leave – if classified as of national interest – are blocked and sold only to Italian residents or institutions, a policy some consider too drastic. The French government is also prepared to put a strong hold on exports, while the use of generous tax breaks makes British gallery heads green with envy. Last month, luxury goods conglomerate LVMH paid €43 million to acquire Gustave Caillebotte’s Impressionist painting Sailing Party for the Musée d’Orsay and received a tax credit of 90% of the purchase price, prompting criticism that the real donors were French taxpayers.

The National Portrait Gallery’s plan for Portrait of Omai, if it can make it, will star in the refurbished galleries, which will reopen in June, and then a five-year program in which it will be loaned to galleries across Britain, with a special focus on educational visits for children. Rightly so, the goal is to ensure that a work is as accessible as possible to everyone, forever. But just as there should be public access, so there should be a public voice to decide what to keep, especially in difficult times.

Instead of reporting and remaining silent, experts on the Review Committee should advocate for key works, form coalitions of interests, and argue their case loudly and publicly. We should hear more about export-banned objects with more time to act: through the media, in parliament, from galleries and museums that want to acquire them. a Dragon’s NestA televised national treasure hunt might be a step too far (although I’d watch it), but more noise, more explanation of the stories of at-risk artifacts and why they matter should be better than silence.

Omai might still disappear, partly because no one got up early enough and fought for it. We need a more informed debate about what national treasures really mean to us and how far we will go to save them.

• The fundraiser to keep Joshua Reynold’s Portrait of Omai in the UK can be found on the Art Fund website. Lucy Ward’s book The Empress and the English Doctor will be published in paperback on Thursday 16 February

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