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‘The Scream’ Sells for Record $120 Million at Sotheby’s

'The Scream'
"The Scream" by Edvard Munch, one of four versions of the composition by the Norwegian artist, went on display at MoMA after selling for a record price. Source: Sotheby's via Bloomberg

Sotheby’s managed a record price and sale tally at last night’s auction in New York, even as 15 lots went unsold.

The star was one of Edvard Munch’s four versions of “The Scream,” which set a record for a work of art at auction when it sold for $119.9 million.

Although 15 of the 76 lots didn’t sell -- many toward the end of the two-hour sale -- the $330.6 million auction was Sotheby’s top tally for an Impressionist and modern art auction.

“The Scream” smashed the previous record of $106.5 million, established in May 2010 by Pablo Picasso’s “Nude, Green Leaves and Bust.” The price for the Munch, which includes Sotheby’s $12.9 million commission, exceeds Christie’s entire Impressionist and modern art sale the night before.

“Trophies fly to the moon,” said Frances Beatty, vice president of Richard L. Feigen & Co., a New York gallery.

A 1941 Picasso owned by financier Ted Forstmann, which according to a lawsuit by his insurer was damaged by a New York gallery, sold for $29.2 million. It was the sale’s second-most-expensive work and just shy of its high estimate of $30 million.

A 1936 Surrealist painting by Salvador Dali titled “Printemps Necrophilique” went for $16.3 million, surpassing the $12 million high estimate. It was the evening’s third-highest price.

Sotheby’s offered five other paintings by Munch, four of which sold.

Last in Private Hands

Munch made four versions of “The Scream,” two in oil and two in pastel. Three of them are in museum collections in Norway. Sotheby’s version was the last in private hands.

The 1895 pastel-on-board ‘Scream’ sold last night was the most-talked-about lot of the current New York auctions, which run through May 11 and may tally $1.5 billion.

Auctioneer Tobias Meyer presided over the 12 minutes of bidding for the work, almost exclusively from the phones. Collectors and dealers in the packed salesroom applauded and whistled when Meyer crossed $100 million.

The victor was a client of Charles Moffett, Sotheby’s vice chairman for Impressionist and modern art, who deals primarily with the U.S. clients, including casino magnate Stephen A. Wynn. Sotheby’s didn’t name the buyer, and auction houses protect clients’ identity.

‘Obvious Candidate’

“Qatar is the obvious candidate for the buyer,” said London-based dealer Richard Nagy, who was at the sale. “Purchasing ‘The Scream’ would have made good business sense for them. They want people to come to their museum, and this is a destination picture. It only would have cost a couple of hours of pumping oil.”

Architect Jean Nouvel is redesigning the National Museum of Qatar, scheduled to open in December 2014. The Museum of Islamic Art, designed by I.M. Pei, opened in 2008.

In February, Vanity Fair magazine reported that the royal family of Qatar paid more than $250 million for one of Paul Cezanne’s five “Card Players,” a version owned by the late Greek shipping magnate George Embiricos. The four other versions are in museum collections.

The Munch work, featuring a hairless androgynous creature with mouth agape and hands covering the ears, comes from the collection of Norwegian businessman Petter Olsen, whose father, Thomas, was a friend, neighbor and patron of the artist.

In a statement he read after the sale, Olsen said, “‘The Scream’ is about anxiety about approaching and anticipating death and today serves as a warning about climate change.”

‘Impact on Nature’

Olsen added: “‘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.”

Proceeds will go in part to establish a new gallery in Hvitsten, Norway, where Munch and Thomas Olsen lived, for Petter Olsen’s private collection. He said he’s also restoring Munch’s house and studios.

“I just hope it goes to a museum, where a lot of people can enjoy it,” said Renee Belfer, a collector and trustee emeritus of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

“The Scream” has appeared on T-shirts and mugs, and has inspired scenes on “The Simpsons” television series and in the 1990 movie “Home Alone.”

Sotheby’s charges buyers 25 percent of the hammer price up to $50,000, plus 20 percent from $50,000 to $1 million, and 12 percent above $1 million. Presale estimates don’t include the buyer’s premium.

Labor Dispute

Outside Sotheby’s, art handlers from Local 814 of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters picketed. They’ve been locked out of their jobs for nine months because of a labor dispute.

“Anyone who buys it is lucky to have it,” Jason Ide, the union’s 30-year-old president, said of “The Scream” before the sale. “We don’t like Sotheby’s labor practices but we love art.”

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