‘The Scream’ sets record with $120m sale

An 1895 version of Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” sold for almost $120m to an undisclosed collector on Wednesday night, smashing the record for an artwork sold at auction, the $106m paid in 2010 for Pablo Picasso’s “Nude, Green Leaves and Bust”.

Over 12 tense minutes at Sotheby’s in New York, seven bidders, some of them in the packed auction room, were narrowed down to two telephone bidders by auctioneer Tobias Meyer, Sotheby’s head of worldwide contemporary art.

The hammer came down at $107m, marking the first time an auction room has seen a hammer bid above $100m. The bidder’s premium, traditionally 12 per cent on works over $1m, brought the aggregate price to $119.9m.

The highlight of a sale that fetched $331m – a record for an impressionist and modern art evening sale – is the only one of four versions of the image not in a Norwegian museum.

Simon Shaw, head of impressionist and modern art at Sotheby’s New York, described the painting as “one of the seminal images from our history”.

The sale, which attracted about 800 people and camera crews from around the world, was “the dream of an auctioneer”, Mr Meyer said. “It is worth every penny that the collector paid for it,” he added.

The pastel on board expressionist work had been expected by Sotheby’s to fetch more than $80m. But its worldwide fame and growing interest in the artist ahead of next year’s 150th anniversary of his birth saw the bidding exceed that.

It was sold by Petter Olsen, heir to the Olsen shipping fortune, whose father Thomas became a friend and patron of Munch when the artist was living in Hvitsten, Norway. Thomas Olsen fled to Britain in 1940, hiding the work from the Nazis in a neighbour’s barn until Norway’s liberation in 1945.

After the auction, Mr Olsen said the picture represented for him “the horrifying moment when man realises his impact on nature and the irreparable change he has initiated, making the planet increasingly uninhabitable”. He said he would use the proceeds to restore Munch’s home and studio and to increase public interest in his work.

Part of Munch’s Frieze of Life, the third of four versions of The Scream features a hand-painted inscription. Two other versions were stolen, in 1994 and 2004, but subsequently recovered.

In a night of mixed results, Picasso’s Femme Assise Dans Un Fauteuil, a portrait of Dora Maar, sold for $29.2m, near the top of a $20m-$30m estimate range and Joan Miró’s Tete Humaine sold for $14.9m, at the high end of its $10m-$15m estimate.

However, two highly anticipated expressionist works by Chaim Soutine fell short of estimates, with Le Chasseur De Chez Maxim’s, estimated at $10m-$15m, going for $9.4m. Miro’s Peinture and works by Francis Picabia and Pierre Bonnard also disappointed.

Asked how he felt to have been the person to sell the auction world’s most expensive work, Mr Olsen said: “I’m pleased with that.”

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