"The Scream" Scares Up $120 Million and Shatters Records at Sotheby's Epic Impressionist and Modern Sale

Edvard Munch's "The Scream," 1895, pastel on board
(Courtesy Sotheby's)

NEW YORK — Edvard Munch’s angst-filled masterpiece "The Scream" rocketed to a record $119,922,500 at Sotheby’s Wednesday evening. The 1895 pastel, expected to fetch in excess of $80 million, became the most expensive artwork ever sold at auction and the first to break the $100 million mark.

It is one of four versions and the only one still in private hands, with the other three safely in Norwegian museums. Remarkably, two of those versions were brazenly stolen and later recovered, making "The Scream" a remarkable target of desire. This particular version has another remarkable component as well, a hand-written poem in red paint on the artist-made frame. Translated from Norwegian, Munch’s blistering poem reads in part, “My Friends walked on / I remained behind / shivering with Anxiety / I felt the great Scream in Nature. E.M.”

The color-charged composition, postcard-famous for the twisted, androgynous, open mouthed central figure, clasping its ears on a bridge and set against a flaming sunset, sold to an anonymous telephone bidder after a protracted 12-minute battle. The contest began with an opening bid of $40 million and quickly moved skyward at one million dollar increments. At least four bidders chased the Expressionist trophy, including Oslo dealer Ben Frija of Galleri K, who led the charge in the salesroom against telephone bidders until the $73 million mark.

Asked after the action if he was surprised by the price, Frija snapped, “No,” and departed the salesroom.

Sotheby’s Asia head Patty Wong was another contender in the frenzied battle, but it eventually became a two-telephone contest, with Sotheby’s executives Stefane Connery and Charles Moffett fielding bids while auctioneer Tobias Meyer patiently awaited the outcome. At the $107 million mark, just as Connery’s bidder ran out of steam, Meyer pitched the audience with the probing question, “anybody else?” — before slapping down the hammer.

Since the pastel wasn’t guaranteed and came in as a regular consignment by its longtime Norwegian owners, heirs of patriarch Thomas Olsen who acquired it in 1937, Sotheby’s was entitled to the whopping $12,992,500 buyer’s premium. Still, it wasn’t clear how much of that profit the house kept in this cut-throat market for trophy works and what is known in the trade as the “enhanced hammer,” when a valuable consigner can cut a deal for a piece of that upside.

In any case, the whopping result drove Sotheby’s evening tally to $330,568,500, exceeding the $246.3-323.4 million pre-sale expectations. It became Sotheby’s highest result for any Impressionist and Modern sale, breaking the $286.2 million mark set back in May 1990, and overall remaining second only to Sotheby’s record $362.3 million contemporary evening sale of May 2008 when Francis Bacon’s "Triptych" (1976), which sold to Roman Abramovich for a record $86.2 million.    

Coming back to Munch, the price is staggering by any measure. For example, until tonight’s massive result, the most expensive pastel to sell at auction was Edgar Degas’s sublime “Danseuse au Repos” (ca. 1879), which fetched $37 million at Sotheby’s New York in November 2008. Tonight’s price also crushed the previous Munch record set by the lusty “Vampire” (1894), which delivered $38.1 million at Sotheby’s New York in November 2008, selling to Gagosian Gallery.

The trophy aspect of the work, which London bookmakers presciently bet would hit around $125 million, decimated the previous world records set by three Picasso paintings and one Alberto Giacometti bronze, "Walking Man," which sold to philanthropist Lily Safra for $104.3 million at Sotheby’s London in February 2010. Munch’s "Scream" also surpassed Picasso’s “Nude, Green Leaves, and Bust” which sold for $106.4 million at Christie’s New York in May 2010, making it the world’s most expensive painting at auction — until tonight.

In yet another example of auction house one-upsmanship, the Munch price alone surpassed Christie’s entire Impressionist & Modern evening sale on Tuesday, which realized $117 million. That said, it's worth noting that five other Munchs offered at Sotheby’s had relatively mixed results, including the beautiful and early, French-influenced interior scene, “Woman Looking in the Mirror” (1892), which made $5,122,500 (est. $5-7 million). Still, the heavily marketed pastel made the likes of Picasso and Giacometti seem like small change, at least for a moment.

It certainly sounded that way in a post-sale briefing as Simon Shaw, head of Sotheby’s Impressionist and Modern department, exclaimed, “If there was ever a work of art of true shock and awe, it is Edvard Munch’s 'The Scream.'”

Not surprisingly, the over-achieving pastel elicited plenty of sound bites. “I think 'The Scream' made a very good price,” said Oslo/Beijing dealer Jens Faurschou, who co-published the Munch catalogue raisonne in 2008, “and it should have, because it is the most important work of art for sale at auction since I began in the business 25 years ago.”

That rave assessment of the work’s importance contrasted in part to London dealer Nicholas Mclean’s comment: “I think it would have meant more (to the market) if it had not done well.”

Though Munch easily dominated the 135-minute auction marathon, there were 75 other lots on offer. Fifteen of the evening’s 70 six lots failed to sell, making for a decent buy-in rate of 20 percent by lot and six percent by value. Forty-four of the lots sold made over a million dollars. Of those, five realized over $10 million.

Another big chunk of the overall tally came from the estate of New York investment tycoon Theodore Forstmann, with 16 of the 17 lots on offer contributing $83 million to the evening. That figure compared to pre-sale expectations of $64.6-96.2 million. Forstmann’s outstanding Picasso entry, “Femme assise dans un fauteuil” (1941) sold to a telephone bidder for $29,202,500 (est. $20-30 million) and Joan Miro’s Surrealist-tinged anti-painting, “Tete humaine” (1931) sold to another telephone bidder for $14,866,500 (est. 10-15 million). New York dealer Nancy Whyte was an underbidder.

After the Picasso sold, a muffled burst of applause was heard from a glass-fronted sky box situated above the salesroom, no doubt emanating from the Forstmann family contingent. Another Forstmann entry, Chaim Soutine’s raggedly charming “Le chasseur de Chez Maxim’s” (ca. 1925), sold to yet another anonymous telephone bidder for $9,378,500 (est. $10-15 million). Forstmann acquired the Soutine at Sotheby’s New York in November 2004 for a then record $6,728,000.

There were other isolated high points and stand-out works, including the stunning and early Surrealist masterpiece by Salvador Dali, “Printemps necrophilique” (1936), inspired by and formerly owned by fashion legend Elsa Schiaparelli, which fetched $16,322,500 (est. $8-12 million). The eerie desert-like setting with a floral-faced model and masked male seated figure last sold at Christie’s London in December 1998 for $4,384,000.

In the sculpture realm, a beautifully realized Constantine Brancusi gilded bronze, “Promethee” from a lifetime edition of four cast in 1911, made $12,682,500 (est. $6-8 million). To put things in perspective, that work last sold at Christie's NY in May 1999 for $1,212,500.

Sotheby’s dazzling night bodes well for the upcoming week of contemporary sales, which kick off on Tuesday at Sotheby’s.

To see some of the top works from Sotheby's Impressionist & Modern Evening Sale, click on the slide show.