Edvard Munch’s The Scream Sells for a Record $120 Million at Auction

Edvard Munch’s iconic painting, The Scream, sets a record for most expensive piece of art ever auctioned.

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Andrew Burton / Reuters

An auctioneer takes bids for the sale of "The Scream" painted by Edvard Munch at Sotheby's in New York May 2, 2012. The painting, which dates from 1895, is one of four versions of the composition, and sold for a record $120 million at the auction on Wednesday, far exceeding pre-sales estimates of about $80 million.

Norwegian painter Edvard Munch’s woeful subject — the art world’s favorite melancholic — looked no happier Wednesday night at Sotheby’s auction house in New York, even though it sold for a record $119.9 million.

A mysterious unidentified telephone bidder bought the painting, setting a record for the most expensive piece of art ever to be auctioned — a significantly higher figure than the starting price, which was a snip at $50 million. The final bid elicited an excitable cheer from the crowd, capping an auction that lasted only 12 minutes.

The painting is one of four versions of The Scream in existence and is regarded by many as the best, as it is the only one to feature a hand-painted frame upon which the artist wrote a poem describing his inspiration: he was “shivering with anxiety” and feeling “the great scream in nature.”

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Mark Winter, director of Munch Experts, told the Guardian, “It is the crown jewel of the four but you really need a national budget to buy it. And not the budget of a small country, either.” Tobias Meyer, the Sotheby’s auctioneer, told Reuters the bidder got a good deal. “It’s worth every penny that the collector paid.”

The painting was sold by a Norwegian businessman named Petter Olsen, whose father was a friend and patron of Munch. He has decided to donate proceeds of the sale to fund a new museum, art center and hotel in the Norwegian town of Hvitsten, where his father and the artist were neighbors.

He tried to explain the painting’s meaning to reporters: “For me, [it] shows the horrifying moment when man realizes his impact on nature and the irreversible changes that he has initiated, making the planet increasingly uninhabitable.”

Although no one is quite sure of the story behind The Scream, we suggest it now depicts the moment an art bidder learns its price.

MORE: Crimes of the Century: The Theft of “The Scream,” 2006

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