One of the most instantly recognizable images in both art history and popular culture, perhaps second only to the Mona Lisa, will his the auction block at Sotheby’s in New York on May 2.
The present version of The Scream dates from 1895, and is one of four versions of the composition, and the only version still in private hands. It will be on view in London for the first time ever, with the exhibition at Sotheby’s opening on 13 April. It will also be on exhibition at Sotheby’s in advance of the sale beginning 27 April. The work is owned by Norwegian businessman Petter Olsen, whose father Thomas was a friend, neighbor and patron of Munch.
“Munch’s The Scream is the defining image of modernity,” commented Simon Shaw, senior vice president and head of Sotheby’s Impressionist & Modern Art department in New York. “Instantly recognizable, this is one of very few images which transcends art history and reaches a global consciousness.”
Shaw says the recent success of masterpieces at Sotheby’s suggests that the price could exceed $80 million.
Sotheby’s says of the four versions of the work, the present Scream is distinguished in several remarkable ways. It is the most colorful and vibrant of the four; the only version whose original frame was hand-painted by the artist to include his poem detailing the work’s inspiration; and the only version in which one of the two figures in the background turns to look outward onto the cityscape. This version has never before been on public view in either the UK or US, except briefly in the National Gallery in Washington D.C. decades ago.
The Scream has been in the collection of the Olsen family for over 70 years. Thomas Olsen, scion of the great ship-owning dynasty, was a collector and supporter of Munch from the late 1920s. Olsen was also instrumental in rescuing 74 of these de-accessioned art works from Germany, thus saving them from probable destruction.
After Hitler rose to power, Munch found himself among the artists whose work was declared degenerate by the Nazi regime and his works were stripped from the collections of the great federal and state galleries across Germany. Of the Munch works that Olsen successfully rescued from the Nazis, he presented Tate Britain with Munch’s The Sick Child and the Oslo City Hall with The Tree of Life, both in 1939, because after conversing with Munch he knew that the artist felt the need of recognition in Western Europe, especially so after the advent of Hitler. Before Olsen and his family fled Norway for Great Britain in May 1940, he transported his collection – including the present work – to Vaagaa in central Norway, where it was stored in a neighbor’s hay barn until Norway’s liberation in 1945.
The Scream’s cultural resonance has been underscored further by two high-profile thefts. In 1994, at the start of the Olympic Winter Games in Lillehammer, Norway, two thieves entered the National Gallery of Norway and fled with the museum’s 1893 version of The Scream. A successful sting operation brought the work back to the museum later that year, unharmed. A decade later, masked gunmen stole Munch’s 1910 version of The Scream as well as his Madonna from the Munch Museum, also in Oslo. Both works were recovered two years later, and were back on exhibition in 2008.