Whopping prediction for ‘Scream’ artwork

Whopping prediction for 'Scream' artwork

The Edvard Munch piece sets a record even before it goes on the auction block next week.

The figure at the center of Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” has gone by many names: a fetus, a worm, a tadpole, a skull. It has been dubbed “the portrait of a soul” and “the face that launched 1,000 therapists.”

Now, for the first time in history it is something else: an auction celebrity. “The Scream” will be on the block at Sotheby’s on May 2, the highlight of the Impressionist and modern evening sale in New York. Sotheby’s experts anticipate the work will fetch more than $80 million, the highest presale figure the auction house has ever set.

The androgynous wraith grasping its cheeks in dread along an Oslo fiord, created by the Norwegian artist in 1895, is an unpredictable trophy with little precedent, famous as much for the pop-culture spinoffs and parodies it has generated as it is for its artistry. One of four versions of “The Scream” that Munch created, this is the only one not in an Oslo museum and the first to ever come up at auction. Sotheby’s is betting big on the work: The auction house could either take credit for selling one of the most expensive artworks ever at auction, or risk embarrassment if its expectations prove too high.

Sotheby’s/APIn 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. The piece has been removed from its frame for certain serious contenders who wanted to stare at the icon nose-to-nose. The picture recently flew to Hong Kong for 48 hours so a top collector could inspect it in person in a private room at Sotheby’s offices.

Potential buyers include European executives, Asian big-spenders and Middle Eastern sheiks. Among the names most often mentioned: the royal family in Qatar, which is building a museum empire and reportedly purchased Paul Cézanne’s “The Card Players” for at least $250 million not long ago. Simon Shaw, head of Sotheby’s Impressionist and modern art department in New York, noted fascination with the work in Japan, where “The Scream” is a particularly resonant image, possibly because Munch was influenced by Japanese prints.

Sotheby’s expert Philip Hook estimates a pool of about 10 collectors. His personal theory: Collectors don’t tend to spend more than 1% of their net worth on an individual artwork. That leaves “Scream” bidders at people worth $8 billion and up.

Buzz around potential buyers has included international collectors who have successfully stalked masterpieces in the past, like Geneva-based billionaire Lily Safra, who spent $104.3 million for Alberto Giacometti’s sculpture, “Walking Man I,” or American cosmetics executive Ronald Lauder, who paid $135 million in the private acquisition of Gustav Klimt’s “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I” for his New York museum. Instead of a large pool of Munch aficionados, art-industry insiders anticipate that a prized work like “The Scream” would more likely draw interest from collectors with broad tastes in blockbuster art, a list that includes Russian industrialist Roman Abramovich and the Greek shipping heir Philip Niarchos. Representatives for the collectors declined to comment.

This month, more than 7,500 people viewed the piece over five days at Sotheby’s in London. The artwork sat under glass about 7 feet behind stanchions, watched by security guards. About 350 collectors saw it more intimately at a reception, though Sotheby’s took the cautious step of confiscating their Champagne before allowing them to approach the work.

Top clients have visited the picture privately at Sotheby’s in New York, sitting in high-backed chairs set a short distance from the work inside a locked room. “One of the world’s great collectors said, ‘I could sell all my pictures, put this on my wall, put my chair here with a cup of coffee and stare at it for the rest of my life and be happy,'” says Mr. Shaw.

The picture goes on wider display to Sotheby’s clients in New York starting Friday. The auction house hired a design firm to create a spot-lit installation for the work in a 10th-floor space, covering up the skylights and curtains on nearby windows and allowing the picture to glow as if lighted from within. Though Munch wanted viewers of his work to act as if in church, reverent with hats in hands, plenty of people who have seen “The Scream” haven’t been able to resist slapping both cheeks and opening their mouths in a silent “O.”

Monaco art dealer David Nahmad says he might bid on “The Scream” if the action stays around $80 million, though not if it soars higher. It’s a fraught investment, he says, arguing that the name “Munch” is not as instantly recognizable as others and the resale value is not guaranteed: “If I have the choice to buy a Picasso or a Munch, I would prefer to buy a Picasso,” he says. “Everybody knows everything about Picasso, Matisse, Cézanne, Monet. If you go to somebody in South America and say there’s a Munch to buy, he’ll say, ‘Who’s he?'”

The version of the “The Scream” up for sale at Sotheby’s is a bright mix of 12 different colors, with the skeletal character in the foreground sporting one blue nostril and one brown one. The third in a series created between 1893 and 1910, the work was created with pastel on rough board. Some art dealers view the pastel as a mark against the work, though others say the lines and colors are more electric than even those found in the painted versions. The picture offers another standout feature: its frame, inscribed with the original 1892 poem Munch wrote that is said to have inspired the work. In it, he describes walking along that fiord, “trembling with anxiety” and sensing “an infinite scream passing through nature.”

Ahead of the sale, the auction house printed limited-edition hardcover books for top clients. It produced two videos promoting “The Scream” at auction, one shot on New York’s Roosevelt Island to evoke the work’s waterside setting, the other a promo with sped-up images of clouds in a blood-red sky set to a throbbing synthesizer score.