Saturday, May 05, 2012

The Scream - the Most Expensive Artwork Ever Sold at Auction

There are four versions of The Scream by Edward Munch (1863-1944). The most colourful one - a work done in pastel - sold at Sotheby's Auction House in New York last week for the largest sum ever taken for one painting at auction.

The Scream being sold at auction at Sotheby's in New York for $107 million
(excluding buyer's premium)
Photo courtesy of Sotheby's
I wonder how many of us would ever have thought a work in pastel would set a significant auction record?

However it's an iconic painting.
Few images have burnt themselves on our collective retina as the Scream has
Simon Shaw, Head of Sotheby’s Impressionist & Modern Art, New York
The four versions of The Scream are:

  • The Scream (1893) Tempera and crayon on cardboard, 91 x 73.5 cm) - one of two painted versions which can be seen at The National Gallery, Oslo
  • The Scream (1910?) Tempera on board. 83.5 x 66 cm.  This second painted version and a pastel version are held by The Munch Museum in Oslo
  • the fourth and most colourful version (Pastel, 1895), owned by Petter Olsen, for $119,922,500 at Sotheby's Impressionist and Modern art auction on 2 May 2012 to a private buyer - for the highest ever hammer bid price paid for an artwork at auction.  It took 12 minutes and an initial group of eight bidders to push the piece up to its eventual hammer bid.
The present version of The Scream, which dates from 1895, is one of four versions of the composition and the only version still in private hands. The work is owned by Norwegian businessman Petter Olsen, whose father Thomas was a friend, neighbor and patron of Munch.
The Scream (1895) by Edward Munch
Sold at auction by Sotheby's New York for $107 million
($119,922,500 including buyer's premium)
Photo courtesy of Sotheby's
Like many others I had misunderstood the experience which gave rise to the painting as a visual expression - which is explained in inscription below the pastel (see image above) and the videos below.
“I was walking along the road with two Friends /
the Sun was setting – The Sky turned a bloody red / And I felt a whiff of Melancholy – I stood / Still, deathly tired – over the blue-black / Fjord and City hung Blood and Tongues of Fire / My Friends walked on – I remained behind / – shivering with Anxiety – I felt the great Scream in Nature – EM”
The artist’s hand-painted inscription on the frame of the present work.
These are three videos by Sotheby's about the The Scream and the pastel work of art which sold at Sotheby's on 2nd May 2012:
  • the second is an introduction to and commentary on The Scream by Simon Shaw, Senior Vice President and Head of Sotheby’s Impressionist & Modern Art department in New York
     and Adam Gopnik, author, critic and a staff writer with 'The New Yorker'
  • The third includes film of the auction where it sold for $119, 922,500 (excluding buyer premium - sale price $107 million).  It was the first time that a hammer bid has exceeded $100 million and, to date, is the highest ever price paid at auction for a painting.

and finally...... 
“The Scream “ for me shows the horrifying moment when man realizes his impact on nature and the irreversible changes that he has initiated, making the planet increasingly uninhabitable. The image of “The Scream” could make more of us fathom the magnitude of the consequences of our continuing emissions of greenhouse gases. This will inevitably lead to the triggering of uncontrollable feedback mechanisms that lie latent in the physics of nature. 
Petter Olsen (owner of the painting prior to auction and son of Thomas Olson - a friend, neighbor and patron of Munch)


  1. It is amazing to see how the market can affect prices of famous artworks.
    I believe that Munch also did a lithograph version of The Scream and possibly a woodcut too? I wonder if these will also increase in value now?

  2. I'm not sure about the sums of money that have been offered for this painting - is it really worth that much!? But if there are people who are willing to spend that much, then lets say it is...

    It is also interesting to see that the symbolic meaning, that at the beginning of the 20th century no doubt was hiding something completely different, is being adapted to the horrors of our generation - emissions of greenhouse gases! I guess it only proves that the painting will never go out of fashion and will allways incorporate human fears, whatever they evolve into.

  3. It's worth only as much as its resale value.

  4. ....which means last week it was worth c.$120 million!

    It's difficult to think of another artwork which is so well known, has iconic status, is not in a museum already and comes to market for the very first time since it was created.

    I guess if there were one then it too would generate an astronomical value. There just aren't that many iconic paintings by dead artists still in private hands.

  5. Wikipedia (click the first link in the name "The Scream") indicates there is also a lithograph version - but doesn't say who owns it. There are also pencil studies for the artwork.

    It's interesting that the other colour versions are:
    EITHER tempera and crayon on cardboard
    OR pastel
    ie no oil paint in sight!


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