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Rich Patriot Sought to Save Iconic U.S. Portrait


WASHINGTON — The Smithsonian Institution is scrambling to keep one of its most famous icons.

By April 1, the Smithsonian must raise $20 million to buy the instantly recognizable portrait of George Washington by Gilbert Stuart from its present owner, who might decide to put it on the open market if the money isn't raised.

The life-size painting of Washington, hand outstretched, is the most reproduced image of Washington in school textbooks, according to the Smithsonian. It had dominated the halls of the National Portrait Gallery since its long-term loan in 1968. When the gallery closed last month for renovations, the portrait was moved to the National Museum of American History for its exhibit on the American presidency, where it again holds a place of honor.

"It is fair to talk about it as an icon and treasure," said Marc Pachter, director of the Portrait Gallery. "It is an excellent painting. You can study art history without looking at it, but you can't study American history without looking at it."

Its owner, who prefers to remain anonymous, is a descendant of the Rosebery family, a distinguished British family that has produced prime ministers and amassed a large art collection. Last fall, the owner quietly gave the Smithsonian an exclusive opportunity to buy the painting, according to museum officials and Sotheby's, the auction house handling the deal.

But after three intense months of work, fund-raising hasn't turned up a single donor. Smithsonian Secretary Lawrence Small personally led the drive and enlisted the Board of Regents, officials at the Portrait Gallery and other supporters.

He said the Smithsonian plan is still to look for an individual donor.

"The owner is extremely happy with the way the National Portrait Gallery has cared for the painting and believes it is a wonderful location," said David Redden, Sotheby's vice chairman. "He felt it was time to give it a permanent owner."

The $20-million price quoted to the Smithsonian is at "a low end of an expectation range," Redden said. "The art market for extremely important paintings is very, very strong. We sold a George Bellows, estimated at $10 million, for $27 million. It was remotely iconic."

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