Who will pay $80 million (or so) for Edvard Munch’s ‘The Scream’?

Edvard Munch’s 1895 pastel “The Scream” hits the auction block in New York on Wednesday. No official estimate for its monetary value is printed in Sotheby’s catalog, but officials have not been shy about disclosing that they expect at least $80 million for the picture, still in the original frame annotated by the artist. When one of the world’s most recognizable images is paired with the highest price any auction house has ever tagged on a work of art, the temptation for snark is nearly irresistible.

As in: $80 million? No wonder the guy’s screaming.

More interesting, though, is the conventional wisdom that says the buyer will of course be a private collector. A fascinating recent story about the sale in the Wall Street Journal noted that: “In a rare move, Sotheby’s sent the work to private homes in Asia, North America and Europe so key clients could test whether the haunting image clashed with the rest of their art collections.” Potential buyers from a tiny pool of possibilities were said to include “European executives, Asian big-spenders and Middle Eastern sheiks.”

In the New Gilded Age, the global boom in billionaires means that “The Scream” will likely vanish into the personal lair of an international criminal -- assuming that you subscribe to Balzac’s famous dictum, which avers: “The secret of a great fortune for which you are at a loss to account is a crime that has never been found out, because it was properly executed.” (Or, as it’s often paraphrased, “Behind every great fortune is a great crime.”) Who else but one of the world’s 1,200 or so billionaires, their net worth exceeding the gross domestic product of Germany, could afford it?

Surely not an art museum, where humankind’s patrimony might be shared. “The Scream” is an iconic rendering in the modern history of radical Expressionist art -- a once-freakish, now conventional stylistic language whose form does not arise from an effort to depict external reality but from the gurgling depths of otherwise inchoate inner experience.

“The Scream” that is up for sale is the third and most vibrantly colored of four versions the Norwegian artist made between 1893 and 1910. It’s the only one not already in either the National Gallery in Oslo or that city’s Munch Museum. Although conceived when Munch was living in Berlin, Oslo is where the image’s icy fjord, undulating landscape, bleeding sky and visually raked bridge -- a favorite local spot for suicide, like the span over San Francisco’s Golden Gate -- are located. All four versions are on board, not canvas. Besides the pastel, two of the other paintings were made with tempera and the remaining one was made with crayon.

But it’s worth asking: Are conventional assumptions correct? Have museums been priced out of “The Scream”?

Maybe not. In 1989, when the J. Paul Getty Museum went to auction and acquired Jacopo Pontormo’s incomparable Mannerist “Portrait of a Halberdier” (1528-1530), the price paid was $35.2 million -- a public record for a 16th century painting. Adjusted for inflation, that’s the equivalent of about $65 million today. “The Scream” is within shouting distance.

How about Vincent van Gogh’s 1889 “Irises”? That Getty acquisition likely went over the Munch-mark.

An Australian businessman had paid $53.9 million for the flawless painting a quarter-century ago. Its private 1990 sale to the Getty, forced by the collector’s subsequent bankruptcy, meant that the price the museum paid was never disclosed. (Sotheby’s brokered the deal, but part of the agreement between buyer and seller was that the price would not be revealed.) The late publisher Walter Annenberg, a collector of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art who was plainly miffed that the auction house had not approached him about buying “Irises,” once insisted to The Times that the Getty must have nearly matched the price the Australian paid. If so, the payout for the purchase in 2012 currency would be more than $94 million.

Then there’s Titian’s stunning picture of individual power and tender pathos, the 1533 “Portrait of Alfonso d’Avalos, Marquis of Vasto, in Armor with a Page.” Owned by an insurance company and on long-term loan to the Louvre, it was a 2003 private sale to the Getty, also at an undisclosed price. Reportedly it cost the museum $70 million. That’s $87 million now -- meaning that, if accurate, the Getty has bought at least two works well within “Scream” territory.

The Getty has passed on many major works over the years, but would the Munch pastel make sense for its European art collection, squeaking in just under the museum’s cut-off date of 1900? Sure. As the most recognizable Expressionist image in the world, it would productively join the first Expressionist painting ever made -- Belgian artist James Ensor’s monumental, visionary 1888 masterpiece of Mardi Gras madness, “Christ’s Entry into Brussels in 1889.” (The Getty does own Munch’s moody, melancholic midnight-landscape, “Starry Night,” painted two years before “The Scream,” but it’s no match for that diminutive blast of alienated horror.) Imagine the raucous Ensor and the reverberating Munch hanging in the same room!

My crystal ball is broken, so I can’t say whether, after the hammer falls Wednesday night, “The Scream” will end up in a Russian oligarch’s dacha, a Qatari treasure-house, a Hong Kong penthouse or elsewhere -- including a Brentwood museum. But surely it’s a testament to (and perhaps an indictment of) the grossly dysfunctional era in which we live that the thought that a public institution might have the wherewithal to acquire a century-old, globally recognized masterpiece is so remote as to virtually escape consideration.

Why, it’s enough to make you scream.


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