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Who Bought “The Scream”? Could It Be an American Museum? UPDATED

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Edvard Munch, “The Scream,” pastel, 1895, sold for $119.92 million

[UPDATE: MoMA informed me at 1:11 p.m. Thursday that it did NOT acquire the Munch. And I was so hoping to see it on display there!]

Maybe it’s just a combination of wishful thinking and circumstantial evidence, but I’m guessing that Edvard Munch‘s “The Scream” was bought by a museum—maybe an American museum, maybe even the Museum of Modern Art.

But first, let me back up for a moment: You do already know, don’t you, that “The Scream” sold last night at Sotheby’s for $119.92 million, including buyer’s premum (hammer price: $107 million), making it the most expensive work of art at auction? (The previous record was the $106.48 million paid in May 2010 at Christie’s for Picasso‘s “Nude, Green Leaves and Bust,” 1932.) The presale estimate, “in excess of $80 million,” was easily exceeded in a 12-minute recital of big numbers that Sotheby’s said had involved eight different bidders.

I was in the salesroom for last night’s moment of art-market history and saw Charles Moffett, Sotheby’s vice chairman for Impressionist, modern and contemporary art, churn out rapid-fire bids on behalf of his mystery client at the other end of the phone line. My strong feeling was that Moffett had authorization to go even higher than he ultimately had to. The megabucks underbidder, also on a line with a Sotheby’s staffer, was considerably more hesitant as the numbers sailed into the stratosphere. Applause burst out when bidding hit $100 million, and again, of course, at the final hammer, after which auctioneer Tobias Meyer proudly marked the occasion by immediately announcing the new world auction record.

Moffett, as CultureGrrl readers will remember, was the Sotheby’s expert (and former museum curator and director) who, at the auction’s press preview, strove to overcome my incredulity about the notion that a museum could possibly touch this touchstone. He had told me that “any museum that buys it would be known as the museum that bought the Munch. Two or three museums have the power on the board [of trustess] to form a consortium to buy it. They could split it 10 or 20 ways.” And he even went so far as to say, “I believe that there may be a situation like that. It’s not just speculation.” The first of several museums he mentioned as possible contenders was the Museum of Modern Art.

As it happened, long-time MoMA trustee Donald Marron was in the house, but he has often attended these sales over many years. What was unusual this time was that he had a boy (perhaps a grandchild?) seated next to him, with whom he frequently conversed—a chance to show him a major artworld moment?

In her recap of the sale, Kelly Crow of the Wall Street Journal mentioned that Moffett “often represents American buyers.” And my hopes were raised even further when I accosted the always amiable Paul Gray, co-director of the Richard Gray Gallery, and asked if he had any idea who had bought it. To my surprise (but not to your surprise, if you’ve seen my tweet on this encounter), he stated that he did know who bought it, but (no surprise) he wasn’t at liberty to say who. I asked if it was a museum, and he wouldn’t say. Then I asked if the identity of the buyer would eventually be made public, and he said it would! I didn’t press my luck and ask whether “The Scream” would ultimately be displayed publicly.

And the final bit of circumstantial evidence is the fact that MoMA itself chose to tweet about the sale of the Munch:

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…and goes to MoMA? Maybe I’ll finally get to see it up close, instead of behind a distant rope.

Yes, of course, I do have a query in to MoMA. But I strongly suspect that whoever purchased this record-breaking masterpiece is not going to choose to announce it first on CultureGrrl. Then again, if MoMA hasn’t bought it, I suppose they might tell me.

The sale’s total hammer price was $291.21 million, against a presale estimate of $246.3-323.4 million. The total with buyer’s premium was $330.57 million, the second-highest sale total in Sotheby’s history. However, a hefty 15 of the 76 lots failed to find buyers, resulting in a sale that was 80.3% sold by lot, 94% sold by value. For prices of individual lots, go here.

A lot of moaning is now likely to ensue from art writers and social commentators who will decry such an excessive expenditure for some strokes of pastel on board. My own view is that it’s more praiseworthy to buy and cherish great art than it is to squander money on furs, jewels, cars and weapons of mass destruction.

At the forefront of the detractors was New York magazine critic and “Next Great Artist” TV personality Jerry Saltz, who yesterday morning told CBS News:

The fact that we’re attaching this kind of value to it [“The Scream’] is kind of disgusting to me, in that we’re not talking about the work. We’re just talking about the money….A museum cannot afford to buy it any more.

Saltz undermined his own authority by repeatedly called the pastel a “painting” and declaring that Sotheby’s had locked out all its employees (actually, just the art handlers and yes, the demonstrators were out in force). CBS compounded these errors by inserting a banner across the screen that screamed: “‘Scream’ painting to get $200 million at auction.” (Said who?)

I’ll refer you to the above-linked Kelly Crow piece and to the recap by Carol Vogel of the NY Times for other highlights of the sale, which fizzled at the end (when almost everyone was already gone), with a dreary succession of six unsold works before the final lot, an Arp sculpture, trounced its $500,000-700,000 presale estimate with a hammer price of $1.35 million ($1.59 million with premium).

The few people still left in the room ended the sale with another round of applause and everyone (save Paul Gray and a few others) wondered: Who bought the Munch?

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