Ex-Navy shipping magnate gives largest ever donation to a British museum

A shipping magnate who served in the Royal Navy as a young man has given £20 million to the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich.

It is believed to be the largest single donation by an individual to any cultural project in Britain.

The gesture by 86-year-old Sammy Ofer, a Romanian Israeli who lives in Monaco, means the museum can create a new wing in time for the London Olympics in 2012.

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Sammy Ofer

Donation: Sammy Ofer (centre) with Lord Sterling (left) and Kevin Fewster (right)

The donation is four times larger than banker John Studzinski's gift to Tate Modern and dwarfs the £2.75 million from philanthropist Christopher Ondaatje that enabled the National Portrait Gallery to build its extension.

Mr Ofer's gift prompted thanks from Gordon Brown. The Prime Minister said: "Our maritime story is Britain's national story. This generous donation by Mr Ofer will help ensure that current and future generations understand better the crucial role played by the sea in our history and the lives of those who depended upon it."

Mr Ofer served in the Royal Navy in the Mediterranean during the Second World War.

Afterwards, he went into ship chandling and built up a business empire that saw him ranked number 226 in the Forbes world rich list last year. He operates a significant part of his fleet from London with more than 90 vessels flying the Red Ensign.

It is his respect for Britain's maritime history, and a long-standing friendship with the museum's chairman, Lord Sterling, that prompted the gift.

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Maritime Museum

Dream come true: A new wing will be created at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich thanks to the £20m donation from Sammy Ofer

Lord Sterling, former executive chairman of P&O, said he knew he needed to raise £20 million for the new wing and just asked Mr Ofer.

He said: "I showed him round the place and the guy suddenly turned around to me and said, 'I'd like to do it.' I was amazed he was serious.

"Nobody has ever given that sort of support in the past. From the National Maritime Museum's point of view it means our hopes and dreams can come true.

"We can make a very dynamic move in creating this new wing for the 21st century."

The wing, which has been 12 years in the planning, will involve refurbishing existing buildings and building of an extension. It will house the museum's archive and purpose-built exhibition galleries.

Mr Ofer said: "I look forward to helping this hugely exciting project and believe it will be a great step forward for the museum."

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