Edvard Munch’s The Scream, 1895, Was Offered at Sotheby’s New York, on May 2, 2012 and Sold for $119,922,500
When The Scream rotated into view at the front of Sotheby’s main New York salesroom on a Wednesday evening in May, it was as if a piece of our collective unconscious had suddenly materialized on the auction block. Considering that the work combined artistic greatness, iconic mass-culture status and absolute freshness to the market, it was heavily favored to break the world record for most expensive work of art at auction. Two months ahead of time, the English bookmaker Ladbrokes gave it 6-to-4 odds of making between $100 million and $150 million and 3-to-1 odds of making it to $200 million. As it happened, the smart money took the shorter odds, but at just shy of $120 million the 32-inch-high pastel on board left the recent record-holders way back in the dust. Picasso’s Nude, Green Leaves and Bust (1932) brought $106.5 million in May 2010 at Christie’s, and the previous record-holder, Picasso’s 1905 Garçon à la Pipe, became the first work to break the $100 million mark at auction when it sold for $104.2 at Sotheby’s in May 2004.
The atmosphere in the packed salesroom tightened as lot 20 approached, and auctioneer Tobias Meyer started the bidding at $40 million. Bids came fast from floor and phones alike, with seven competitors vying for the work, until the action seemed to stall at $91 million. But it soon restarted, and from then on two parties pushed the price higher and higher till Meyer hammered the lot down to an anonymous phone bidder at $107 million (the 12 percent buyer’s premium charged by the auction house accounts for the rest).
This 1895 version of The Scream is one of four that Munch made over the course of several years, and the only one left in private hands. The consigner was Petter Olsen, a Norwegian businessman whose father, Thomas, was a friend and patron of Munch’s and acquired it over 70 years ago. It is the most colorful of the four, and also the only one in which one of the figures on the bridge turns to the side to look back toward the city. Another unique point about the record-breaking Scream is that the artist painted onto the frame a poem of his own composition, which reads: “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…My Friends walked on—I remained behind / —Shivering with Anxiety—I felt the great Scream in Nature.”