"The Scream" Files: What You Need to Know About Edvard Munch's Soon-to-be-Auctioned Masterpiece

"The Scream" Files: What You Need to Know About Edvard Munch's Soon-to-be-Auctioned Masterpiece
Edvard Munch, "The Scream," 1895 (detail)
(Courtesy Sotheby's)

Next week's sale of a pastel version of Edvard Munch's truly iconic work "The Scream" — the only one of the four Munch did to survive in private hands — at Sotheby's in New York marks what will likely be one of the most important auction moments of the decade. "For 25 years I have followed the auction market, I have never seen anything as important as this coming up at auction," Jens Faurschou, a dealer and Munch expert from Copenhagen whose gallery co-published the artist's catalogue raisonné, told ARTINFO. In London, the auction house has displayed the painting for a public viewing over the last week, prompting major attention from the public and causing a Guardian journalist to complain of never-before-seen layers of security.

The scrutiny in the media is no less intense. Over the weekend, the Financial Times published a lengthy piece that exhaustively gave account of "The Scream" and its cultural signficance. Possibly the most striking thing about the article is the sheer number of superlatives brought forward to describe the work — it is touted as "one of the most" disturbing, recognizable, and valuable works of art of all time. Is it really all these things? While Sotheby's is generally pretty good at conjuring hype from nothing, in this case the work might just live up to the attention. ARTINFO broke out the most believeable superlatives that the FT article doles out.


The most subjective of the assertions may be that the work is "one of the most disturbing images to come out of the history of modern art." While what is horrifying to one person may not be at all creepy to another (give me "The Scream" any day over one of Cindy Sherman's clowns), the subject is certainly dark and unsettling despite the colorful pastel hues. Somewhat over-dramatically, Sotheby's specialist Philip Hook writes in the specially created auction house catalogue that "'The Scream' is the image that launched a thousand therapists."

It certainly helped take art history beyond Impressionism. "I think 'The Scream' is probably the strongest early Expressionist work, where you really get feelings into the artwork instead of the Impression," Faurschou told ARTINFO. Today, he added, it is still "definitely one of the strongest images, not just in the Munch circle but in art history in general."


The Financial Times quotes Hook, who says that "The Scream" is the second-most recognizable work of art in the world (the first being the "Mona Lisa"). Faurschou, for his part, thinks that it might even have surpassed Leonardo da Vinci's masterpiece in pop-culture significance. As the article points out, there is something universal about the emotions elicited by the work, which then lends itself to appropriation and parody. Faurschou agreed. "It speaks to us very much today because we all sometimes feel that we are standing on that bridge."

The FT goes so far as to suggest that the image might be even more relevant to today's culture than it was originally. "In a society that is more fast-moving, multilayered and disorienting than ever before, 'The Scream' has come to stand for our various states of anxiety…" The pop-culture references catalogued in the story include Andy Warhol's screenprint appropriation of the work (which itself recently sold for £300,000 at Sotheby's London auction), the poster for the "Home Alone" movies, Wes Craven's "Scream" horror movies, an M&M advertising campaign, and, apparently, at least two "New Yorker" cartoon submissions per week. ARTINFO's staff would like to add the allusion by the popular television show "The Simpsons," and various amatuer homages all over the internet.


All of the superlative monikers given to the painting point to what will likely be a seriously high — even record-high — sale price. In addition to calling it "one of the most valuable artistic images ever created," the FT notes that the "in excess of $80 million" estimate is the highest value ever assigned by Sotheby's. And even that could be conservative.

It's worth noting that $80 million seems low when compared to the auction record for an artwork, which is held by the $106.5 million paid for Pablo Picasso's "Nude, Green Leaves and Bust" at Christie's New York last year. Munch may not be quite the luxury brand that Picasso is, but "The Scream" is certainly more recognizable. The record-breaking work, according to Faurschou, "was a beautiful Picasso, but it was not the most important Picasso." As such, there is no precedent for the sale of this definitive work — it is possible that the auction house is actually expecting it to surpass $80 million. Last November, when Sotheby's offered Gustav Klimt's Nazi-looted masterpiece "Litzlberg am Attersee," it was given a similar "in excess of" $25 million estimate, and ended up selling forsubstantially more than that — $40.4 million.

At the very highest end of the market, being the winning bidder means much more than just having a new canvas to hang on the wall. It means something, in terms of wealth and power, to be able even to participate in the compatition for an evening sale's top lot. The iconic status of "The Scream" will likely make it more coveted by those with the tremendous means to purchase it than if it was merely another $5-million or even $50-million work. Owning such a blockbuster lot will become part of the person's (or institution's) public persona, the way that Steve Wynn is associated with the Picasso he put his elbow through, and the al-Thanis of Qatar are now associated with Cezanne's "Card Players."

According to Faurschou, there are some very motivated Munch collectors with the means to acquire it (he did not name names), but there are also a number of non-Munch collectors who may be interested in buying a status symbol. While the FT says that "The Scream" is "one of those rare works that transcend the trends of the art market," and would fetch a high price no matter which way the global economic winds were blowing, it also fits into the present moment's status-obsessed climate. "'It is a tremendously trophy-oriented market at present, and this is a major trophy."

Are there museums that might be interested in adding a coveted Munch to their collections? It's unlikely without the aid of someone with deep pockets behind the scenes. "There are definitely museums who have patrons who would be able to help the museums acquire this," said Faurschou, noting that it could mean lines around the block to see the work and be a tremendous bargaining chip in getting other important works loaned. Still, in the end he questions whether there are patrons willing to put that quantity of money up. The question for museums, collectors, and investors is all the same: How bad do you want "The Scream"?

UPDATE: Note that this work is not a painting, but rather a pastel. A commentor (below) was confused. Munch executed two paintings and two pastels of "The Scream," and this is one of the pastels. The two painted versions are in musuems in Norway.