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National Perspective | Culture

Famed Washington Portrait for Sale; L.A. Buyer Sought

March 07, 2001|KATHLEEN HOWE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — For more than three decades, the imposing, life-size portrait of George Washington has presided over the entrance of the National Portrait Gallery here--one hand graciously extended toward the tourists who passed through the museum's grand foyer.

Now the painting, which has been on loan, could be headed for the auction block--with a $20-million price tag attached.

The British owner of the 1796 portrait has notified the gallery that he wants to sell it. So officials have mounted a nationwide search for a benefactor to donate the money, thus ensuring that the painting will remain on public display at the museum, which is part of the Smithsonian Institution.

That's why Marc Pachter, the gallery's director, is in Los Angeles this week.

"My instinct is that the person who is going to do this for the nation is going to be from the West," Pachter said. "It just captures the imagination of Westerners."

The Gilbert Stuart painting is one of the most reproduced images of the nation's first president. Replicas can be seen at the White House, in the Capitol rotunda, in statehouses across the nation and in countless textbooks.

"I believe that it is as important to America as the Constitution or the Bill of Rights, because it is a visual representation," Pachter said. "There are no photographs of this great leader, so it sets forever the history of George Washington."

The work was commissioned by Sen. William Bingham of Pennsylvania as a gift to the Marquis of Lansdowne, and the painting subsequently became known as the Lansdowne portrait.

It was displayed for many years in England and Scotland before descendants of the marquis loaned the painting to the Smithsonian in 1968, when museum officials opened the National Portrait Gallery. The portrait remained there until early last year, when the gallery closed for renovations.

It is temporarily on display in the Smithsonian's Museum of American History. Upon completion of the portrait gallery renovation--set for 2004--the painting is set to be the museum's "crown jewel," Pachter said.

For now, however, its owner--the 33-year-old Lord Dalmeny, a descendant of the earl--is in the market for a buyer.

"I can't shut the door any longer for people looking to buy it," Dalmeny recently told the London Times. "It represents a very large part of my family's assets, and I can't keep saying no."

Dalmeny, a deputy director at Sotheby's auction house in London, said he has received offers exceeding $20 million. But his hope is that the painting somehow will remain in Washington.

"I'm more than willing to meet the gallery on structuring a way to make sure the picture stays there, which is what I want," Dalmeny said.

If a benefactor is found, museum officials agree that the painting could spend the next three years wherever the donor desires, until the renovation at the portrait gallery is complete.

"If the donor was from L.A. and his goal was for the portrait to go to L.A. for three years, we don't see any problem in that," Pachter said.

Last fall, Dalmeny gave the museum exclusive first opportunity to buy the painting. Facing an April 1 deadline, officials have been scrambling to find a buyer. After April 1, Dalmeny has indicated, the painting may go on the open market in a deal to be handled by Sotheby's.

Once that happens, said David Redden, vice chairman of Sotheby's in New York, the estimated price of $20 million could prove to be at the "low end of an expectation range."

Pachter agreed. "It is something that is beyond price. And if someone wants it to be theirs, they will bid to get it."

Pachter said he has great confidence that he will find a patron saint in Los Angeles.

"My guess is that the individual who will step up to the plate may not be someone traditionally connected to the museums as a donor, but someone who sees it as an act of patriotism," Pachter said.

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