May 01, 2012

Sotheby's and "The Scream"

In what promises to be the highlight of a very exciting Spring auction season, this week Sotheby's is offering one of the most famous images in art history, Edvard Munch's "The Scream".  Created in 1895, this pastel on rough cardboard example is the third of four versions the artist produced between 1983 and 1910.  Ranging from crayon to tempera and with various color schemes the central figure remains the same - a twisted, tadpole-like person clutching his ears with his mouth open in an "O".

Edvard Munch (1863-1944) is considered a Symbolist painter and printmaker and is probably Norway's most famous artist.  With a history of mental illness in his family, he painted "The Scream" when he was an alcoholic, a chain-smoker, penniless and despondent of a recent love affair gone sour.  The figure in the painting is standing at a popular suicide spot in Oslo - a location where one could hear screaming from both a nearby slaughterhouse and an asylum for the insane (where the artist's sister Laura was institutionalized).  Conceived as part of Munch's epic series the "Frieze of Life:  A Poem About Life, Love and Death" the painting came about as "[Munch] was walking down the road with two friends when the sun set; suddenly, the sky turned as red as blood.  I stopped and leaned against the fence, feeling unspeakably tired.  Tongues of fire and blood stretched over the bluish black fjord. My friends went on walking, while I lagged behind, shivering with fear.  Then I heard the enormous, infinite scream of nature."

Dubbed "the face that launched 1,000 therapists", Munch's angst ridden character has been reproduced in every format from mouse pads to Homer Simpson cartoons and remains one of the most recognizable images of our time.  Of course this begs the question of why are people so drawn to such a clearly distraught personage?  I certainly don't know but Sotheby's is laying a heavy bet that this example, the last one still in private hands and the only one in a special frame inscribed with a Munch poem that is said to have inspired the work.  How big is the bet?  That I can tell you.  The pre-sale estimate is a cool $80 Million - and they have several potential bidders lined up!

The frenzy to glimpse this painting, last seen in the United States on a loan to the National Gallery of Art in Washington in the 1990s, has been such that the auction house required potential visitors to sign up as Sotheby's clients and secure a $5,000 line of credit before being able to make an appointment.  The London audience exceeded 7,500 in five days of viewing with thousands being turned away.  Those patient souls who queued up for a look were kept at a good distance from the actual painting and even then it was behind glass.  A handful of top tier collectors, those billionaires considered prospective buyers, were permitted private viewings and in a very few cases even had the painting delivered to their homes so they could "live" with it while making a decision.

It was my extreme good fortune to have been granted access to a private preview at Sotheby's New York last week.  As you can imagine the security was tremendous and we were escorted up to the tenth floor exhibition space that had been transformed into a church-like viewing area.  Surrounded by a swarm of Norwegian media people, we gazed at this masterpiece, now spot-lit and isolated and positively glowing, though smaller than I had expected.

As I mentioned, this is the only example not in a museum collection.  It was probably commissioned by a German coffee magnate and at some point ended up in the possession of Mr Thomas Olsen, a patron and neighbor of the artist who lived in the Norwegian town of Hvitsten.   Mr Olsen is credited with saving "The Scream" and other Munch works from the bonfires of the Nazis searching for degenerate art during World War II.  It is now the property of Mr Olsen's son, Petter Olsen, a Norwegian real-estate developer who is selling the painting to fund a museum dedicated to Munch's work.

Now comes the question - have Sotheby's and Mr Olsen accurately gauged the interest of the buying public in this celebrated but very disturbing work of art?  There have certainly been some astronomical art prices achieved at auction in recent months, but is an $80 million estimate, the highest pre-sale estimate in history, tantalizing or a deal breaker?  Happily we don't have long to wait!  The painting goes on the block on Wednesday evening, May 2, Lot # 20 out of 76 works being offered.  I'll be back soon after to let you know if the gamble paid off and "The Scream" made history!

P.S.  Bidding on "The Scream" opened at $40 million and progressed at million dollar increments to the final hammer price of $107 million to a telephone bidder.  That makes it the most expensive painting ever sold at auction for a final price of $119,900,000!  Maybe we should re-name it "The $cream"!

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