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Munch’s “The Scream”: Who Will Buy It? For How Much? (plus video)

Good luck trying to get a good view at Sotheby’s presale exhibition (open, until noon on Wednesday, but only to Sotheby’s clients) of one of the best-known images in the world—Edvard Munch‘s “The Scream.” Partly for security reasons and partly to convey the dramatic awe of a “chapel” (as a Sotheby’s specialist called it), the small pastel-on-board is engulfed by a dark cave. (You can glimpse it, brightly spotlit, at the back.):

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This confined viewing area may not be as tightly packed for you as it was for me at today’s press scrum…

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…but the area will likely be too crowded to allow you much face-to-face time with the only one of Munch’s four versions (other than prints) of this archetypal image that is not in a Norwegian museum. Said to be the third in the series, this 1895 picture is also the only one executed in pastel, and (for reasons you will hear in my video, below) Sotheby’s experts are tirelessly arguing that this is the best of the four iterations.

Even if you do manage to gain admission to the restricted presale exhibition and squirm your way to the front of the worshippers of this icon, you won’t be able to properly savor it That’s because it’s installed beyond a wire barrier that keeps you too far back for proper viewing of this relatively small (32 by 23 1/4 inches) gem of expressionistic color and line.

I’ve never encountered such frustrating circumstances at a presale exhibition before, but then the people flocking to Sotheby’s in the next few days are not the auction house’s target audience for this picture. Those fabulously rich prospects (as Ellen Gamerman reported today in the Wall Street Journal) have already seen it—sometimes in the comfortable privacy of their own homes (under the continuous watch of Sotheby’s traveling security guards).

Who are the heavy-hitters who may have been wooed in this manner? Gamerman cites the usual suspects—people who have already spent record-breaking sums on art, such as Ronald Lauder, Lily Safra, Roman Abramovich, Philip Niarchos and the Qatar royal family.

But that’s fighting the last auction battle. The Super Bowl trophy of the artworld, “The Scream” may attract new, unexpected players. Charles Moffett, Sotheby’s vice chairman for Impressionist, modern and contemporary art, told me today, “We’ve got 10 [interested bidders] in the running.” They include, he said, “four Asians, a couple of Russians and a couple of Americans.” I asked what Americans might conceivably be interested in dropping megamillions on a Munch. “Hedge funders,” he answered. (Calling Stevie Cohen?)

But then Moffett, a former curator at several major museums and former director of the Phillips Collection, Washington, played a wild card: “Any museum that buys it would be known as the museum that bought the Munch.”

Museum?!? What museum (except for one planned by the Qatar royal family) could possibly afford this? (As far as I know, Alice Walton‘s Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art isn’t venturing into Norwegian territory any time soon, although I do know a certain Rothko and Pollock, coming up the following week at Christie’s, that might well tempt her.)

“Two or three museums have the power on the board to form a consortium to buy it,” Moffett asserted. “They could split it 10 or 20 ways.” He mentioned the Museum of Modern Art, Metropolitan Museum, and possibly the Houston Museum of Fine Arts and Art Institute of Chicago as places where this could conceivably be accomplished. He assured me that this was not mere wishful thinking on his part. “I believe that there may be a situation like that. It’s not just speculation,” he told me.

How many millions will it take? The presale estimate is “in excess of $80 million.” But the auction-house experts today kept citing as comparables previous record prices that exceeded $100 million, including the $135 million said to have been paid privately by Ronald Lauder for Klimt‘s “Adele Bloch-Bauer I.” Dealers interviewed by Gamerman suggested that the estimate was too high: Munch, not well known to the general public, except for a couple of iconic images, is no Picasso, according to their argument (which could well be self-serving, if they wish to acquire the work for themselves or clients at a “reasonable” price).

CultureGrrl would make a Klimt-Munch analogy: In cases like this, it’s not the renown of artist’s name that matters most; it’s the iconic quality of the image. For an art-historical touchstone like “Scream,” fetching a new world record for a work of art does not seem to be too far-fetched, especially if there’s really as much competition for it as Moffett suggests.

On the day of reckoning, several of the unsuccessful bidders, with Munch money to burn, will
be able to comfort themselves with a consolation work by the artist: There will be five lesser examples of his oeuvre on the block at Sotheby’s, all coming up later in the same sale, with the highest estimate at $7 million—mere chump change for “Scream” candidates.

But enough of this fevered (and probably erroneous) speculation. Let’s get back to my scream-worthy encounter with “Scream”: The frustrating circumstances at the auction house today yielded the photo below, for which I stood as close as anyone can get:

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Happily, my camera (but not my eyes) has a zoom lens:

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That plaque at the bottom, completely impossible to make out at the press viewing, contains the text (written by Munch on this original frame) of his own prose poem, which this image illustrates.

Let’s go now to my CultureGrrl Video of Sotheby’s senior vice president Simon Shaw and Impressionist/modern co-chairman David Norman, hyping “The Scream” today for the scribe tribe. I literally genuflected before them on my creaky knees—the only way I could position myself in front of the scrum and get a semi-clear shot of the proceedings (with occasional clunks on the head from the forest of television-camera booms that loomed above me). The annoying white light you’ll see in the middle of the Munch is the reflection on the protective glass of the camera lights. (Doesn’t this heroic effort merit a few clicks on my “Donate” button from some well-heeled bidders?)

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