It took 12 nail-biting minutes and five eager bidders for Edvard Munch’s famed 1895 pastel of “The Scream” to sell for $119.9 million, becoming the world’s most expensive work of art ever to sell at auction.
Bidders could be heard speaking Chinese and English (and, some said, Norwegian), but the mystery winner bid over the phone, through Charles Moffett, Sotheby’s executive vice president and vice chairman of its worldwide Impressionist, modern and contemporary art department. Gasps could be heard as the bidding climbed higher and higher, until there was a pause at $99 million, prompting Tobias Meyer, the evening’s auctioneer, to smile and say, “I have all the time in the world.” When $100 million was bid, the audience began to applaud.
The price eclipsed the previous record, made two years ago at Christie’s in New York when Picasso’s “Nude, Green Leaves and Bust” brought $106.5 million.
Munch made four versions of “The Scream.” Three are now in Norwegian museums; the one that sold on Wednesday, a pastel on board from 1895, was the only one still in private hands. It was sold by Petter Olsen, a Norwegian businessman and shipping heir whose father was a friend, neighbor and patron of the artist.
The image has been reproduced endlessly in popular culture in recent decades, becoming a universal symbol of angst and existential dread and nearly as famous as the Mona Lisa.
Outside of Sotheby’s, there was excitement of a different kind, as demonstrators protesting the company’s longtime lockout of art handlers waved placards with the image of “The Scream” along with the motto, “Sotheby’s: Bad for Art.” Many in the group — a mix of union members and Occupy Wall Street protesters — even screamed themselves when the Munch went on the block. (Munch’s work was an apt focus for the group, said one protester, Yates McKee: “It exemplifies the ways in which objects of artistic creativity become the exclusive province of the 1 percent.”)
Inside, the atmosphere generated by the Munch’s record price carried through the rest of the auction, which saw high prices for everything from Picasso paintings to sculptures by Giacometti and Brancusi.
Of the 76 lots on offer, 15 failed to sell. The evening’s total was $330.56 million, close to its high estimate of $323 million. (Final prices include the buyer’s commission to Sotheby’s: 25 percent of the first $50,000; 20 percent of the next $50,000 to $1 million and 12 percent of the rest. Estimates do not reflect commissions.)
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