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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

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👋 Konta!*

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[*Papiamento, Dutch Caribbean]

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