American Billionaire Leon Black is ‘The Scream’ Buyer

Munch's $120 million painting went to New Yorker Leon Black. Good news or bad? By Blake Gopnik.

Kirsty Wigglesworth / AP Photo

So “The Scream” is, as it were, out of the bag. It turns out that Edvard Munch’s picture, which Sotheby’s auction house sold in May for the record price of $119.9 million, paid by an anonymous bidder, was in fact bought by the New York moneyman Leon Black, according to a report in today’s Wall Street Journal.

There are reasons to be pleased by the news. Black, who is 60 years old, is on the boards of both the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art, so there’s a decent chance that, within say the next 30 years, the picture will end up in one of those great collections. It might even be shown in one or both places before then, giving wide access to the world’s secondmost famous image. (“The Mona Lisa” comes first).

Until now, the 1895 picture has been living in a private collection in Norway, mostly out of reach. (Munch painted three other versions of “The Scream,” all now in museums in Oslo.) If Black’s trophy had been won by a magnate in Russia or China, as most of us expected, who knows what its fate might have been, especially after the buyer got bored or died. Having it at a great New York museum—if that ever happens—is a guarantee that it would be well taken care of, and presented in the context of other works of Western art that would help it make sense.

Black’s purchase also proves that, contrary to what’s usually said, New York, and America in general, “remains the deepest market,” as Noah Horowitz reminded me this morning. His Art of the Deal is a crucial book on art and finance. He also pointed out that, in inflation-adjusted dollars—the only kind that matter—Black’s Munch hasn’t set any records. Van Gogh’s Dr. Gachet, for instance, sold for today’s equivalent of about $150 million in 1990, at the tail end of the 1980s bubble market.

“The Scream” is too famous for its own good: It has become an icon, a celebrity, and barely has meaning beyond that. Being elbowed by a museum’s other great artworks might challenge it to open up in new ways, and might challenge us to demand more from it. (It might be a good thing to see “The Scream” pale beside Picasso’s Demoiselles d’Avignon, at MoMA, or outshout Monet’s “Haystacks” at the Met.) Wherever it lives, it should never go on permanent display: Black’s version of “The Scream” is on cardboard, so it can’t stand too much exposure to light. Only a major museum would be guaranteed to know how and when to reveal it, for maximum public enlightenment.

But then there are the downsides to today’s news. For starters, it reminds us that, even in our democratic society—forget Russia or China—we are living in a place where people can have more than $100 million in expendable cash to drop on a board smeared with color. I can’t see how anyone, imagineering an ideal America, would plan a country where one person can buy “The Scream” for such sums, while half a million people go homeless. Let’s remember that Munch’s picture would be just as great a work if the art market’s top prices happened to hover around $10 million, leaving Black $110 million to give to our hospitals or schools. (Or even to pay in taxes—but let’s not go all socialist here.) In 1921, The Blue Boy, by Thomas Gainsborough, then the most expensive picture ever and as famous as “The Scream” is now, only sold for around $700,000—something like the $10 million I just mentioned, in today’s dollars.

Even within the remote little world of art, today’s giant sums spent on pictures shouldn’t count as good news. People often mention how museums have been priced out of the market—while others note that if curators only have patience they’ll still get their hands on most of the overpriced pictures. But will donors (let alone heirs) really be as keen on letting such artworks go, when they represent such a big chunk of their fortune? Outlandish prices also have more insidious effects: they drive up insurance to the point where American museums can no longer assemble some loan exhibitions. They also skew the public’s sense of which pictures matter, when in fact pricing has little to do with artistic quality and a lot more to do with scarcity and fashion and what happens to be up for sale, when.

Over the last few months “The Scream” has had much more publicity than it deserves, thanks to the numbers attached to it. “The Mona Lisa” only became iconic because of the double dose of headlines it got when it was stolen in 1911, then returned two years later. If the reputation of “The Scream” goes on to pass “The Mona Lisa”’s, it will be because of the double dose of money stories that people like me have written this year.

Big prices can also hurt museums more directly. Every $10 million extra that the market has forced Black to spend on a picture is that much cash that he doesn’t have around to donate to one of his pet art institutions. (And if he’s on such fancy boards as MoMA’s and the Met’s, he’s definitely making donations.) Or even if Black kept his $100 million in a cookie jar marked “Only for Art,” not that long ago it would have bought 10 supreme works that museums might have gotten their hands on. Now they will have to settle for one.

So I’m pleased that Black was the winning bidder on Munch’s “Scream.” I just wish he hadn’t set a record to get it.