‘Scream’ price may boost local pride

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Oslo politicians have often been accused of failing to fully recognize the value of the art that their city inherited from the country’s most famous artist Edvard Munch, or even to properly care for it. They may snap to attention now, after a pastel version of Munch’s Skriket (The Scream) sold during the night for a world-record price of just under USD 120 million.

Artist Edvard Munch, photographed here in 1921 by legendary Norwegian photographer Anders Beer Wilse, was often unhappy in Norway but left his own vast collection of his works to the City of Oslo. Now hopes are rising that the city will take better care of Munch's legacy. PHOTO: Wikipedia

It was the highest price ever commanded at an art auction, and 50 percent higher than auction house Sotheyby’s had estimated in its highly publicized run-up to Wednesday night’s auction in New York.

The actual price hammered down after 12 minutes of bidding was USD 107 million, but ended at USD 119,922,500 (around NOK 685 million at current exchange rates) after all fees and commissions were added and included in what art experts consider the market price.

The bidding both in the room at Sotheby’s and over the telephone sent gasps through the crowd, with the New York Times reporting that applause broke out when the price surpassed USD 100 million. The sale had attracted enormous international media attention, and added to the hype and mystique that’s surrounded Munch’s art for years.

The bidding ended with two prospective buyers competing over the telephone, and they hadn’t been identified by Thursday morning. The Times reported that speculation centered on Microsoft tycoon Paul Allen, financier Leonard Blavatnik and members of Qatar’s royal family, although others believed buyers from the Middle East weren’t in the final round.

It does appear, though, that the only version of Munch’s Scream in private ownership will remain so, unless the buyer lends it out for public viewing or even donates it to a museum. Seller Petter Olsen, whose Norwegian family had held the painting for decades, had hoped the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York would be the successful bidder, so that a version of The Scream could go on display in the US.

The Munch Museum at Tøyen in Oslo has had problems with condensation, security and lack of capacity, but its leader now hopes for a new stream of visitors following the latest record price for a Munch painting. Meanwhile, politicians keep quarreling over plans for a new Munch Museum. PHOTO: Views and News

Now Munch enthusiasts in Norway, many of whom have felt that local politicians have worked against them in their efforts to preserve Munch’s legacy, hope the sale dubbed “historic” by Sotheby’s officials will boost public support among Norwegians for their home-grown international master.

Stein O Henrichsen, the relatively new head of the Munch Museum in Oslo, was in New York for the auction and hopes it will spark a stream of new visitors both from within and outside Norway. “It was fantastic to experience the atmosphere in the (auction) room,” Henrichsen told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK). He marveled over how Norway had produced an artist that could command such a “formidable” price, and hoped it will prompt more tourists to come to Norway to see more of Munch’s works. His museum has a large collection, most of which is stored away at all times because of a lack of display space, while the National Gallery also has a collection of its own.

Both the Munch Museum and the National Gallery in Oslo still have their versions of the "The Scream," despite the thefts of two of them. The stolen paintings were eventually recovered. PHOTO: Munch Museum Oslo

The Munch Museum and the National Gallery own the three other versions of Munch’s Scream, and at least one of them is on display at all times. If the version sold in New York this week is kept out of public view, the other originals will be available for admiration in Oslo along with scores of other Munch masterpieces. Politicians still haven’t agreed on long-debated plans for a new Munch Museum in Oslo. It took their predecessors nearly two decades to build the relatively small museum that opened in Oslo’s Tøyen district more than 50 years ago. It’s taking a long time to settle on a new design, location and funding for a new museum worthy of Munch’s collection as well.

In the meantime, Scream-seller Olsen is moving forward with his own plans to personally finance construction of a new Munch gallery and museum on his family’s property along the fjord south of Oslo where Munch himself once lived and worked. Olsen’s parents were patrons of Munch, which is why Olsen inherited his own impressive collection of Munch paintings. He intends to put them on display, with the help of proceeds from Wednesday night’s sale of his version of The Scream.

Olsen said he was “fornøyd” (satisfied) with the record price his painting fetched, and that Munch “will continue to play a considerable role in my life.” Olsen, an avid environmentalist, claimed Munch also had serious concerns about the environment, quoting Munch’s own words that his painting depicted “a scream through the nature.”

He also hopes the sale,  its record price and the publicity around it all will further boost interest for Munch’s work and the messages that Olsen thinks the paintings send.

Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund

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