Institutions should normally respond within four weeks, but can request extra time. The Tate asked for an additional two weeks, because third parties needed to be consulted before papers could be released. We were eventually shown around 100 pages of documentation, coming from six different Tate files and representing about a quarter of all the papers on the gallery's attempts to acquire the painting. A few names were blacked out.
Photocopies were promptly supplied of those papers which we requested. We were then asked to sign a copyright form, stating that we would not quote from the documents without permission. The Tate official explained that they, in turn, would need to seek agreement from the authors of the relevant letters. We pointed out that if we sought copyright clearance before using brief quotes from unpublished or published sources, then journalism as we know it would become almost impossible. The following day the Tate relented, saying that after reconsideration it would now be permissible to cite short extracts from documents disclosed under the FOI act.
The correspondence provided covered the 2001 Sotheby's sale of Reynolds' Omai, the Tate's successful attempt to raise the necessary £12.5 million ($24 million) after an export licence had been deferred, the new owner's refusal to sell the painting and the recent agreement to borrow the portrait for a Reynolds exhibition which opens at the Tate Britain on 26 May.
Although it came as no surprise, the papers did not reveal the identity of the owner of Omai (believed to be the family of Dublin collector John Magnier) or the mystery benefactor who offered £12.5 million to the Tate. There was very little information not already in the public domain, although it was interesting to see Sir Nicholas Serota's recent request to borrow the Omai. His letter of 20 December 2004 was addressed to "Dear Private Collector", with the contact addressed blacked out (it was probably London dealer Guy Morrison). In summary, we received a reasonable amount of documentation from the Tate, but much was withheld.
Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Tate Gallery: Reynolds’ Portrait of Omai'