THE royal family of Qatar are rumoured to be the likely buyers of Edvard Munch’s The Scream after the 1895 picture went for £74 million to become the most expensive artwork ever sold at auction.
The image of a screaming figure holding its head in its hands against a vivid orange sky and swirling purple sea with a ship in the distance ranks with Van Gogh’s Sunflowers or da Vinci’s Mona Lisa as an instantly recognisable icon of the art world.
The picture is one of four versions by the Norwegian expressionist painter, and the only one still in private hands. It sold for $119,922,500 at Sotheby’s in New York, including a $12.9m “buyer’s premium” for the auctioneer.
The buyer was not identified, but art market experts were focused on two telephone bidders who competed for the painting. A likely favourite was Qatar’s royal family, although one of Russia’s billionaire collectors was another rumoured bidder.
Sheikha Mayassa, the 29-year-old daughter of the Qatar’s emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, is seen as a driving force behind buying so-called “destination pictures” to bring tourists to the country, which hosts the World Cup in 2022.
In February, Qatar was reported to have bought Paul Cezanne’s The Card Players in a private deal for $250m.
Georgina Adam, editor-at-large of the Art Newspaper, said The Scream’s auction purchase was “raising the sky” for future sales. “It means that a much higher price is now possible, though it’s got to be a really, really top work of art,” she said.
“It is one of the most universally recognised images, probably after the Mona Lisa. Every student has had a mug with the picture of The Scream on it.”
The previous record for an artwork sold at auction was $106.5m for Picasso’s Nude, Green Leaves, and Bust, sold by Christie’s in 2010.
A previous Picasso, his portrait of his lover, Dora Maar was bought in 2006 by Boris Ivanishvili, a Georgian magnate for $95.2m at Sotheby’s.
A lithograph version of The Scream, hand-coloured by Munch, is among an exhibition of 50 of his woodcuts and lithographs on show at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art until September. About 5,000 people have seen the exhibition since its opening.
The £74m picture was put on sale by Norwegian businessman Petter Olsen, whose father was a friend and patron of Munch. Proceeds will go towards a new museum, art centre and hotel at the family’s Norwegian farm.
Describing the sale, a Sotheby’s spokesman said: “A group of seven bidders jumped into the competition early, but it was a prolonged battle between two highly determined phone bidders that carried the final selling price to its historic level.”
Sotheby’s two-hour sale of Impressionist and modern art brought in a record $330.6m.
Sotheby’s described its pastel-on-board version of The Scream as the most colourful and vibrant of the four versions and the only one whose frame was hand-painted by the artist to include a poem about the work, in which Munch described how he was inspired to paint it after “shivering with anxiety” at a sunset, and saying he felt “the great scream in nature”.