The Secret Buyer of the Royal Opera House’s £13 Million David Hockney Is Its Own Board Chair—and He’s Lending It Back

David Ross purchased the artwork at Christie’s last month and will now lend it back to the British public.

Christie's gallery assistants adjust David Hockney's Portrait of Sir David Webster (1971). Photo: Yui Mok/PA Images via Getty Images.
Christie's gallery assistants adjust David Hockney's Portrait of Sir David Webster (1971). Photo: Yui Mok/PA Images via Getty Images.

In October, the Royal Opera House in London put a prized 1971 David Hockney painting up for sale at Christie’s to raise funds in a move that drew ire from certain cultural circles.

The artwork, a portrait of the venue’s former general administrator, David Webster, went for £12.8 million ($17 million) to a then-unidentified buyer.

Now, that person’s identity has been revealed—and for those upset by the prospect of the portrait leaving the venue, it comes as a pleasant surprise.  

The buyer of the painting, it turns out, was David Ross, the billionaire co-founder of the British cellphone retailer Carphone Warehouse, who is also the recently elected chair of the opera house’s board of trustees.

And his first act as the artwork’s new owner is to loan it right back to the performing arts institution. 

Carphone Warehouse deputy chairman David Ross and Saffron Aldridge Photo: Nick Harvey/WireImage.

Carphone Warehouse deputy chairman David Ross and Saffron Aldridge Photo: Nick Harvey/WireImage.

“The arts have had an incredibly difficult year, with many institutions having to make extremely tough decisions in order to survive,” Ross told the Art Newspaper, noting that the opera house decided to sell the painting before he joined the board in July. 

“As the chairman of the Royal Opera House and the National Portrait Gallery, I care deeply about the arts being as accessible as possible and their educational value,” he said. “So, I decided to participate in the auction to secure the painting for the British public.”

The Portrait of Sir David Webster was commissioned in 1971 upon Webster’s retirement, and was paid for through donations by the opera house’s staff.

It has lived at the venue, concealed in an acrylic box, ever since.

The Royal Opera House announced in early October that it was consigning the artwork to Christie’s as part of its financial recovery plan. At the time, Alex Beard, the Royal Opera House’s chief executive, called the sale a “vital part of our strategy.”

Aside from a brief trip to the National Portrait Gallery in 2023 for an exhibition, the painting will be back at the opera house on long-term loan.


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