One of the most iconic images in art history — Edvard Munch’s The Scream — has become the most expensive artwork ever sold at auction.
During an intense 12 minutes, the 1895 artwork — a modern symbol of human anxiety — was sold at Sotheby’s in New York on Wednesday for a record US$119.9 million. Neither the buyer’s name nor any details about them were released.
The previous record for an artwork sold at auction was US$106.5 million for Picasso’s Nude, Green Leaves, and Bust, sold by Christie’s in 2010.
Munch’s image of a man holding his head and screaming under a streaked, blood-red sky is one of four versions by the Norwegian expressionist painter. The auctioned piece at Sotheby’s is the only one left in private hands.
The image has become part of pop culture, “used by everyone from Warhol to Hollywood to cartoons to teacups and T-shirts,” said Michael Frahm of the London-based art advisory service firm Frahm. “Together with the Mona Lisa, it’s the most famous and recognized image in art history.”
“As popular culture, it provides an analogy for both individual and collective experiences of, variously, loss, pain, grief, modernity, nature gone awry, the body out of control, and Existential struggle,” said Patricia Berman, chair of the art department at Wellesley College.
A buzz swept through the room when the artwork was presented for auction as two guards stood watch on either side. Bidding started at US$40 million with seven buyers jumping immediately into action.
The battle eventually boiled down to two telephone bidders as the historic hammer price was finally achieved after more than 12 minutes. The record price includes the auction house’s fee.
Sotheby’s said this version of The Scream, done in pastel-on-board, is the most colorful and vibrant of the four and the only version whose frame was hand-painted by the artist to include his poem, detailing the work’s inspiration.
In the poem, Munch described himself “shivering with anxiety” and said he felt “the great scream in nature.”
Norwegian businessman Petter Olsen, whose father was a friend and patron of the artist, said he sold the piece through Sotheby’s because he felt “the moment has come to offer the rest of the world the chance to own and appreciate this remarkable work.”
“I have lived with this work all my life, and its power and energy have only increased with time,” Olsen said.
Proceeds from the sale will go toward the establishment of a new museum, art center and hotel in Hvitsten, Norway, where Olsen’s father and Munch were neighbors.
Only two other works have sold for more than US$100 million at auction: Picasso’s Boy With a Pipe (The Young Apprentice) for US$104.1 million and Alberto Giacometti’s Walking Man for US$104.3 million.