Selling 'The Scream'
One of the best-known images in modern art comes up for auction for the first time ever next week, with an $80 million estimate. Putting a price on angst.
Now, for the first time in history it is something else: an auction celebrity.
"The Scream" will be on the block at Sotheby's on May 2, the highlight of the Impressionist and modern evening sale in New York. Sotheby's experts anticipate the work will fetch more than $80 million, the highest presale figure the auction house has ever set.
The androgynous wraith grasping its cheeks in dread along an Oslo fiord, created by the Norwegian artist in 1895, is an unpredictable trophy with little precedent, famous as much for the pop-culture spinoffs and parodies it has generated as it is for its artistry. One of four versions of "The Scream" that Munch created, this is the only one not in an Oslo museum and the first to ever come up at auction. Sotheby's is betting big on the work: The auction house could either take credit for selling one of the most expensive artworks ever at auction, or risk embarrassment if its expectations prove too high.
In a rare move, Sotheby's sent the work to private homes in Asia, North America and Europe so key clients could test whether the haunting image clashed with the rest of their art collections. The piece has been removed from its frame for certain serious contenders who wanted to stare at the icon nose-to-nose. The picture recently flew to Hong Kong for 48 hours so a top collector could inspect it in person in a private room at Sotheby's offices.
Potential buyers include European executives, Asian big-spenders and Middle Eastern sheiks. Among the names most often mentioned: the royal family in Qatar, which is building a museum empire and reportedly purchased Paul Cézanne's "The Card Players" for at least $250 million not long ago. Simon Shaw, head of Sotheby's Impressionist and modern art department in New York, noted fascination with the work in Japan, where "The Scream" is a particularly resonant image, possibly because Munch was influenced by Japanese prints.
The Many Faces of Munch's "The Scream"
Buzz around potential buyers has included international collectors who have successfully stalked masterpieces in the past, like Geneva-based billionaire Lily Safra, who spent $104.3 million for Alberto Giacometti's sculpture, "Walking Man I," or American cosmetics executive Ronald Lauder, who paid $135 million in the private acquisition of Gustav Klimt's "Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I" for his New York museum. Instead of a large pool of Munch aficionados, art-industry insiders anticipate that a prized work like "The Scream" would more likely draw interest from collectors with broad tastes in blockbuster art, a list that includes Russian industrialist Roman Abramovich and the Greek shipping heir Philip Niarchos. Representatives for the collectors declined to comment.
This month, more than 7,500 people viewed the piece over five days at Sotheby's in London. The artwork sat under glass about 7 feet behind stanchions, watched by security guards. About 350 collectors saw it more intimately at a reception, though Sotheby's took the cautious step of confiscating their Champagne before allowing them to approach the work.
Top clients have visited the picture privately at Sotheby's in New York, sitting in high-backed chairs set a short distance from the work inside a locked room. "One of the world's great collectors said, 'I could sell all my pictures, put this on my wall, put my chair here with a cup of coffee and stare at it for the rest of my life and be happy,'" says Mr. Shaw.
The picture goes on wider display to Sotheby's clients in New York starting Friday. The auction house hired a design firm to create a spot-lit installation for the work in a 10th-floor space, covering up the skylights and curtains on nearby windows and allowing the picture to glow as if lighted from within. Though Munch wanted viewers of his work to act as if in church, reverent with hats in hands, plenty of people who have seen "The Scream" haven't been able to resist slapping both cheeks and opening their mouths in a silent "O."
Monaco art dealer David Nahmad says he might bid on "The Scream" if the action stays around $80 million, though not if it soars higher. It's a fraught investment, he says, arguing that the name "Munch" is not as instantly recognizable as others and the resale value is not guaranteed: "If I have the choice to buy a Picasso or a Munch, I would prefer to buy a Picasso," he says. "Everybody knows everything about Picasso, Matisse, Cézanne, Monet. If you go to somebody in South America and say there's a Munch to buy, he'll say, 'Who's he?'"
The version of the "The Scream" up for sale at Sotheby's is a bright mix of 12 different colors, with the skeletal character in the foreground sporting one blue nostril and one brown one. The third in a series created between 1893 and 1910, the work was created with pastel on rough board. Some art dealers view the pastel as a mark against the work, though others say the lines and colors are more electric than even those found in the painted versions. The picture offers another standout feature: its frame, inscribed with the original 1892 poem Munch wrote that is said to have inspired the work. In it, he describes walking along that fiord, "trembling with anxiety" and sensing "an infinite scream passing through nature."
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Munch wouldn't have necessarily minded such a mass-media campaign. The artist, whose work once was deemed so subversive parents were warned it could give their children chickenpox, was a master of savvy marketing. The Norwegian nicknamed "Bizzarro" early in his career was one of the first artists to charge admission to view his early works. He made the move in 1892 after the Kaiser gave a speech against his paintings in Germany. Munch wasn't making money off sales, but at least he could pocket the entrance fees.
Art historians call "The Scream" Munch's reaction to Impressionism, which seemed to bore him—he complained it just showed people knitting or reading—and heralded in an era of Expressionism in which artists attempted to dissect their own psychological cores. Before creating "The Scream," Munch had been reading many of the same books and attending the same Paris hospital lectures as Sigmund Freud, says Ms. Prideaux. In the years before "The Scream," Nietzsche had famously philosophized that "God is dead," paving the way for modern explorations of alienation.
The image quickly caught the attention of the freethinking art crowd in Europe. To make the most of the excitement, Munch created black-and-white lithographs so the image could be printed in European magazines and sold individually. He refused to explain the work, further fueling public fascination.
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In recent decades, the skeletal figure has been reproduced everywhere from ice-cube trays to political posters. A symbol of universal angst, it graced the front of Time magazine's 1961 "Guilt and Anxiety" issue. In more recent years, it has found new life as an ironic mash-up, suggested in the "Home Alone" scream and copied in a cartoon of Homer Simpson as the tortured Nordic soul.
Director Wes Craven says he was first drawn to the howling ghost-face mask that became the star of his "Scream" movies because it reminded him of the Munch image, one of his favorite artworks. "It's a classic reference to just the pure horror of parts of the 20th century, or perhaps just human existence," he says.
Such global exposure has made the work a target. London bookies have offered 20/1 odds on this work getting stolen before the auction. Two other versions of "The Scream" were stolen from Oslo museums. In 1994, thieves brought a ladder to a window at the National Gallery on the first day of the Olympics in Lillehammer and took the work, leaving a note in its place thanking the museum for its lousy security. A decade later, masked gunmen entered the Munch Museum and nabbed "The Scream" and another Munch work. (Mars Inc., which used "The Scream" in advertising for dark-chocolate M&Ms, offered two million M&Ms for the work's return, though that candy reward has not yet been delivered per instructions by Norwegian authorities, according to the company.) Both works were eventually recovered.
Sotheby's has long been laying the groundwork for the Munch market, engineering eight of the top 10 Munch sales in recent years. "We have quite consciously and strategically attempted to build his profile and build a global marketplace," says Mr. Shaw. In 2008, Sotheby's sold "Vampire," a moody painting of a flame-haired woman kissing a man's neck, for $38 million, the artist's auction record. It went to an American after a contest against Russians and others, according to people familiar with the bidding.
But because so few Munchs have come up for auction, collectors don't have much of a sales history to rely on, which could hurt bidder confidence. "Fertility," a Munch pastoral scene that adorned a 2010 Christie's catalog cover, failed to sell at all.
New York art dealer David Nash, who ran Sotheby's international Impressionist and modern department for many years, says that though he expects the work to fetch a high price, he's still surprised by the auction house's "Scream" strategy. "There doesn't seem to be much justification for such a high estimate," he says. "They'd be better off to put a more realistic estimate and let the market determine what the final price is going to be."
Others are more bullish: Skate's Art Market Research, a global art market analyst, estimates the work will sell between $92.5 million and $123.4 million, a figure it arrived at in part by looking at sales of other famous works by artists such as Paul Gauguin and Vincent van Gogh. The standing record for a piece at auction was set in 2010, when Picasso's "Nude, Green Leaves, and Bust" fetched $106.5 million at Christie's. Auction houses keep raising the stakes: This spring, Christie's and Sotheby's Impressionist, modern and contemporary sales are sprinkled with works priced to sell for more than $20 million, estimates rarely ventured a decade ago.
The owner of "The Scream," Petter Olsen, a Norwegian real-estate developer and shipping heir, is trying to win big with the sale. He waived a price guarantee—an arrangement often used in the sale of high-profile items where the auction house assures the seller a minimum sum in exchange for a larger commission.
Mr. Olsen, who through Sotheby's declined to be interviewed, grew up with the work in the living room of his childhood home. It belonged to his father, Thomas Olsen, a patron and neighbor of Munch's in the tiny Norwegian town of Hvitsten. During World War II, Thomas Olsen hid this "Scream" and dozens of other Munch works in a remote hay barn to protect them from the Nazis, who were torching art they declared degenerate.
Over its lifetime, the picture has belonged to just three families. It was originally owned by a German coffee magnate, who probably commissioned the work. Mr. Olsen has said he is selling it in order to fund a museum of Munch's work in Hvitsten to open next year.
In recent years, the international spotlight has shown brightly on the artist. A Munch exhibit drew more than 486,000 visitors to the Centre Pompidou in Paris last year and opens at London's Tate Modern in time for the summer Olympics. Next year marks the 150th anniversary of Munch's birth, an occasion commemorated by a major joint Norwegian museum exhibition (the event has its own Twitter feed).
There may be a physiological reason for the visceral reaction to that figure with its cartoonish skull and gaping mouth. Harvard neurobiology professor Margaret Livingstone found in her research on macaque monkeys that neurons in the brain respond to exaggerated features—huge eyes or tiny noses—more than to common ones. "That's why I think a caricature of an emotion works so well," she says. "It's what our nerve cells are tuned to."
Munch enthusiasts see a simpler explanation for the picture's grip: "A scream is a very human thing," says Karen Nikgol, a co-founder of the Oslo contemporary art space NoPlace. "The inner sorrow or the inner anguish and inner pain, that's timeless."
Write to Ellen Gamerman at email@example.com