Why $120 Million Record Art Sale For “Scream” Isn't All That High A Price For Some

A version of “The Scream” by Norwegian artist Edvard Munch sold at Sotheby’s for a record amount, as far as public auctions are concerned. With private sales, however, prices can be in a whole other stratosphere.

Why $120 Million Record Art Sale For “Scream” Isn't All That High A Price For Some
Tim Ackermann

A murmur courses through the packed room as the bidding mounts. The screen behind the auctioneer shows the number 99 with six zeroes after it: 99 million dollars. Somehow, it looks incomplete. Everybody is silently expecting further bidding, but there's a lull. A Sotheby's executive holding a telephone receiver in one hand asks for a few minutes: the client at the other end of the line needs more time. "Of course," says auctioneer Tobias Meyer accommodatingly before leaning forward towards the audience, a relaxed smile on his face: "For 99 million you can have all the time in the world."

A few seconds later, the unknown bidder on the phone bids another million. His rival bidder promptly raises by another million. At which point it has become clear that – on this Wednesday evening in New York City – Meyer has made auction history with Edvard Munch's pastel drawing "The Scream." For the first time ever, an art work has hit the $100 million mark at public auction sale.

Meyer let the hammer fall energetically at $107 million (81.3 million euros). "I am selling this work for a historic sum," he said. Munch's drawing dates from 1895, and was the only one of the four world-famous "Screams' the artist created that was still in private hands. And it has just officially become the most expensive picture ever to be sold at public auction. The Norwegian artist had trumped super seller Picasso, the previous record holder. Unconfirmed reports say that the buyer is the ruling family of Qatar.

Picasso's painting "Nude, Green Leaves and Bust" brought $106.5 million at auction in May 2010 – with the auction house's buyer's commission already figured in: the actual hammer price was just under the $100 million mark. But the mark has now been crossed, and if you add the buyer's commission to the hammer price of "The Scream" you get the sensational end price of $119.9 million (around 91 million euros).

There was something slightly surreal about the easy way the millions mounted on that evening, as casually as if they were Smarties. And it was striking to once again experience how far the art market is from the rest of the economy – in fact, all talk, even all thought, of a worsening of the crisis just seems to make it stronger. The sky's the limit for people with the kind of money to invest in stellar art works.

Which explains the purported $250 million paid at a private sale in Spring, 2011 for a version of Paul Cézanne's "Card Players." The prices that are paid in private transactions such as these are considerably higher than the prices made at public sales.

Pollack, Klimt and "Aryanized" Art

The same holds true for the Jackson Pollock painting "No. 5, 1948" that American entertainment entrepreneur David Geffen sold in 2006 for $140 million to a Mexican collector. For the Neue Galerie in Manhattan, co-founder Ronald Lauder bought Gustav Klimt‘s "Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I" for $135 million at a private sale.

But whether buying at public or private sales: the number of people who can afford world-famous masterpieces by Munch and Cézanne is very limited. At the recent sale in New York, bidding lasted for about 15 minutes, and the few others who were in on it at the outset fell away quickly as the price rose towards $80 million, the original estimate.

Only two Sotheby's experts were still on the phone with bidders by this time: Charles Moffett and Stephane Connery, both vice presidents of Sotheby's New York. Moffett's client bid very fast and made the winning bid. As Moffett is also Sotheby's global vice-chair for Impressionist, Modern and Contemporary Art his range of collectors and contacts is so vast that even speculation about who his bidder was is unproductive, one guess as good as another.

What is known, however, is what the seller of "The Scream," collector Petter Olsen, is planning to do with the record sum his art work brought in: on his estate in Norway, he intends to open a Munch museum. Prior to the sale, questions of provenance had been aired in the media, questioning whether a German-Jewish owner had had to sell the work, bought by the Olsen family in 1937, for financial reasons. But that, along with criticism of the auction sale from the German collector's heirs, were not issues on the day.

Which begs the question, that also cropped up when the Klimt portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer changed hands, if inconsistencies of provenance aren't one of the attractions of certain works and hence one of the reasons such high prices are shelled out for them. The sale of two portraits of Bloch-Bauer, the wife of a Jewish entrepreneur, marked the end of a 60-year conflict about the return of art works "Aryanized" by the Nazis. That was not an issue with the recently-sold "Scream" although it too was touched by the play of 20th century ideologies.

Something else to note about the recent sale: just because it's Munch doesn't mean the price will always be stratospheric. One of the other art works at the Sotheby's sale, which turned over a total of $331 million (251 million euros), was a "Summer Night" by the Norwegian –and it failed to find a buyer.

Read the original article in German

Photo - Katie Lips

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

Iran-Saudi Arabia Rivalry May Be Set To Ease, Or Get Much Worse

The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.

Military parade in Tehran, Iran, on Oct. 3


LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.

Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.

The role of the nuclear pact

Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.

It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.

He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."

The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.

Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.

Photo of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Riyadh's warming relations with Israel

Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."

The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."

Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."

Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.

If nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.

Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.

Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.

For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!