Who Won the Bidding Match Over Munch’s ‘The Scream’?

Edvard Munch’s famous ‘The Scream’ fetched $119 million at Sotheby’s in New York, the most expensive artwork ever sold at auction. But did a rich Chinese collector buy it? A dot-com mogul? A hedge-fund tycoon? Nobody’s saying. Plus, Blake Gopnik on the artistic merit.

Kirsty Wigglesworth

Last night, in a packed and jittery salesroom, Sotheby’s hammered down Edvard Munch’s 1895 “The Scream”—that emblematic image of a man wailing on a bridge—for $119.9 million. Amid giddy applause, It became the most expensive artwork ever sold at auction.

In a drawn-out bidding war, a handful of players went above the $50 million mark, and the subsequent exchange was tense and witty. Auctioneer Tobias Meyer told one Sotheby’s employee "I love you," when his client, by telephone, reversed a decision to drop out of the competition and bid over $100 million. Finally, Meyer, in a German accent by way of London’s Mayfair, announced, as he brought down the gavel: “I shall sell it then for the historic sum of $107 million.” Bang! (Sotheby’s commission rounded up the total.)

The winning bid was made by telephone through Charles Moffett, a top official at Sotheby’s and former chief curator of the National Gallery who normally deals with U.S. clients. He was smiling—but no one was happier than the seller, Petter Olsen. He’s using the proceeds to open a hotel and museum complex devoted to Munch in Hvitsten, Norway, and, after the sale, he gave a passionate and rambling speech that essentially argued that “The Scream” is a warning about emissions and saving the environment.

The hype had been deafening on the work; the auction sales pitch even compared it to the “Mona Lisa.” But it’s not actually a painting: It’s pastel on cardboard, and one of four “Scream” pieces (the other three are all in Norwegian museums). But it proved such a powerful magnet, people close to the matter said, that most of the consigners to this week’s sales opted to sell at Sotheby’s over rival Christie’s, by a ratio of more than two-to-one. This may have backfired on Sotheby’s, however, as the sale dragged on, and one out of five artworks didn’t sell or sold low, including some Munchs.The total raised was $330.5 million, one of Sotheby's highest ever.

Sotheby’s CEO, Bill Ruprecht, said “not even crumbs” when asked for details, then ordered a double gin to celebrate. In Sotheby’s lobby, and after, in text message and calls, rumors flew: “Chicago hedgie…Microsoft co-founder …Brazilian banking widow.” According to David Norman, co-chairman of Sotheby’s, only eight people have paid over $100 million for a work of art, some of whom have never been identified publicly. Said one of the city’s top art dealers: “Low-profile European billionaire is your best guess” of who bought it.

In the days leading up to the sale, rumors had circulated that a museum was buying, sometimes the talk was of a group of trustees. But the directors of both the Dallas Museum of Art and the Houston Museum of Fine Arts were not in town for the sale. (Not that they’d have to be…) Scott Black, president of Delphi Management and a trustee of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, said, “we already have a great Munch…and for $80 million+, you could endow a medical school.”

Donald Marron, chairman of Lightyear Capital and president emeritus of the Museum of Modern Art, sprung up the second the gavel fell on the Munch, but later denied he was involved. "I don’t know if it went to an institution–but it should have," he said.

Further West, the Getty Museum is normally a big spender but recently fired staff as a cost-cutting measure. The Metropolitan Museum of Art? Not known for its spending sprees, it issued a “no comment.” Of course, a Scandanavian institution could have bought it ... but they have three. The Seattle Art museum is cash-strapped, but it could head to the Emerald City if Paul Allen was on that phone.As for individuals rich enough to buy, Bill Gates, by and large, buys American art; Casino mogul Steve Wynn recently came off of a $741-million divorce; cosmetics king Ron Lauder, who bought Klimt’s “Adele Bloch-Bauer” for in excess of $100 million, isn’t spending as freely these days and has passed on Munchs offered in the past. Art dealers who’ve done deals with all three of these men put put them out of the running.

Qatar, the United Arab Emirate which is on a massive art-collecting, museum-building spree, last year purchased Paul Cezanne’s “The Card Players” for $250 million. But, said one dealer who has done multiple deals with emirates collectors “The people who buy for the people who buy for the emir don’t appear to be interested.” Moreover, while Sotheby’s loaned the Munch to some private homes in Asia and London for a look-see, it did not tour it to the Middle East,As for the likelihood of a Chinese buyer, Larry Warsh, perhaps the top U.S. collector of Chinese Contemporary Art, said “The money is there, whether this type of conspicuous consumption is something that they want to exhibit at this present time highly doubtful." Munch is not a well-known artist in China, he noted.

Russian billionaires? Roman Abramovitch's girlfriend Dasha Zhukova announced pricey plans last week for Rem Koolhaas to create a new Gorky Park, Moscow home for her Garage museum – but doesn’t plan a permanent collection. Russian-American Len Blavatnik is a better guess: he’s rumored to have viewed the painting privately in London.There's Steve Cohen. The Greenwich, Conn. hedge-fund manger has a huge and spectacular collection of trophy art, owns a Munch, and takes home $1 billion in compensation a year, according to the Wall Street Journal. (His office didn’t return calls seeking comment ). Moffett, who took the winning bid, handled a sale of Cohen's Manet at Sotheby's two years ago. But isn’t Cohen known best for his collection of images of beautiful women? The Sotheby’s catalog is careful to refer to the figure in “The Scream” as androgynous.