George W. stays home

Portrait: Famed Washington painting rescued from auction gavel by obscure foundation.

March 17, 2001

GEORGE W. won't be traveling to England. Not that he didn't want good relations with our allies. He just belongs here, near our seat of power.

We're not talking about the current White House occupant; this is about his earliest predecessor.

It took $20 million from a little-known foundation in Las Vegas to keep George Washington in the town named after him. That's because the most famous portrait of him -- Gilbert Stuart's life-size rendering -- has been owned by British royalty since the president posed for the painting in 1796.

It has been on loan to the Smithsonian Institution since 1968. But the current owner, 33-year-old Lord Dalmeny, wants to cash in on his family heirloom. He told the Smithsonian he'd put the 8-foot-tall painting up for bids unless it forked over $20 million by April 1.

Public pleadings from Smithsonian officials did the trick. The Donald W. Reynolds Foundation -- set up by an Oklahoma newspaper owner -- quickly produced the cash, plus an extra $10 million to send the portrait on a three-year tour of U.S. museums while a permanent display in the National Portrait Gallery is prepared.

So a precious part of our patrimony has been secured. Millions will get to view this esteemed work over the next 36 months, and future generations won't have to hop a jet to London to glimpse this wonderful portrayal of our country's best-known citizen.

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