UPDATE (New York Times): 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.
Art experts are confidently predicting Edvard Munch’s The Scream will fetch anywhere between $80 million and $150 million when the icon of existential angst goes on the block this evening (May 2, 2012) at Sotheby’s auction house in New York City.
Which raises the question: Just how much more would it be worth if there was only one Scream — not the four that actually exist?
(Or four dozen if you include the black-and-white Scream lithographs Munch produced in 1895.)
Many artists have executed variations on a theme, but few have tried to reproduce exactly the same image repeatedly — and none except Van Gogh’s Sunflowers series with Munch’s success.
Until the May 2 auction was announced, all of The Scream originals — two paintings and two pastels — resided in Munch’s homeland, Norway.
Munch’s first painting of The Scream — done in oil, tempera and pastel crayon on cardboard — was made in 1893. That version is owned by the National Gallery of Norway in Oslo.
Munch also did a pastel version in 1893, possibly as preliminary study before executing the painting. The 1893 pastel is held by the Munch Museum in Oslo, which also owns the final painting of The Scream, a tempura-and-oil-on-cardboard version done in 1910.
The third Scream is another pastel, done in 1895, and currently owned by Norwegian Petter Olsen, who inherited it from his father, a shipping magnate who was an early patron of Munch.
That’s the only one in private hands and the one that will be sold at Sotheby’s tonight (May 2). It’s also considered the most appealing version by many, with vibrant colours and the two dark figures in the background posed differently than in the other versions.
Which brings up the question: How do you tell the four Munch “originals” apart?
It’s easy if you know what you’re looking for; confusing if you don’t. And it can become really confusing if you don’t know there are four different “authentic” Screams.
As it happens, two of the originals have been stolen and recovered — the 1893 oil-tempera-pastel painting stolen from the National Gallery in 1994 (on the opening day of the Lillehammer Winter Olympics), and the 1910 tempera-oil painting taken at gunpoint from the Munch Museum in 2004 (recovered in 2006).
The paintings have substantial differences but many newspapers around the world illustrated their reports of the thefts with photos of the wrong version. You’ve seen one Scream, you’ve seen ‘em all, I guess.
But if you’re looking at a photo or reproduction of The Scream, here’s how to tell which version you’re looking at:
1. The 1893 painting: Vibrant red-orange sky; the two figures in the background are walking away; the foreground figure has eyes. This is the most commonly reproduced version.
2. The 1893 pastel: Not quite as vibrant; the foreground figure has eyes; one of the background figures is looking out at the fiord. (Note: This is not a great reproduction but it’s the best of a bad lot — there are very few images of the 1893 pastel in the public domain.)
3. The 1895 pastel: Vibrant red-orange-yellow sky; the foreground figure has eyes; one of the background figures is leaning on the railing. This is the one currently up for grabs.
4. The 1910 painting: The sky is predominantly red and yellow; the two background figures are walking away; and the foreground has NO eyes. This is probably the second most frequently reproduced version.
The 1893 pastel has rarely been photographed and the 1895 pastel was completely out of public view until it was put on display in Sotheby’s London showroom leading up to the May 2 New York auction.
And then, of course, there are the black-and-white lithographs Munch made in Berlin in the autumn of 1895, some of which he hand-tinted. Art historian Ulrich Bischoff, a Munch authority, believes the artist executed about 45 lithographs.
Why so few? Munch had to go home to Norway on a family matter during the winter of 1895-96. When he returned to Berlin, he learned his printer had ground down the surface of the lithograph stone bearing The Scream to make a clean slate (in a manner of speaking) for another artist’s carving. Waste not, want not. It’s enough to make you scream.
Here’s what Munch had to say, in an 1892 diary entry, about the inspiration for The Scream:
“I was walking along a path with two friends – the sun was setting – suddenly the sky turned blood red – I paused, feeling exhausted, and leaned on the fence – there was blood and tongues of fire above the blue-black fjord and the city – my friends walked on, and I stood there trembling with anxiety – and I sensed an infinite scream passing through nature.”