NEW YORK—Sotheby’s made auction history at its evening sale on May 3, when a version of Edvard Munch’s iconic artwork, The Scream, 1895, became the most expensive painting ever sold at auction, realizing a total of $119.9 million, with premium, after being hammered down at $107 million. Along with the more than $80 million achieved from the blue-chip private collection of the late financier Theodore Forstmann, it contributed to a $330.6 million total that Sotheby’s said was the second-highest for the house in any sale category.
The sale further underscored the continued, global, art market boom that is fueled, at the top, by rare masterpieces (by the likes of Munch, Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse) that are heavily competed for by so-called trophy hunters, who are among the wealthiest buyers in the world.
The Munch painting came from a private Norwegian collector, Petter Olsen, whose father Thomas, a friend of the artist, acquired it after it was expelled from the Dresden State Art Collections as “degenerate” by the Nazi Propaganda Ministry.
With an unpublished estimate of around $80 million, auctioneer Tobias Meyer opened the bidding at $44 million, and the price quickly jumped up from there with multiple, $1 million increment bids from the room and on the phone.
Patti Wong, chair of Sotheby’s Asia, was bidding for a client on the phone, against Charles Moffett, Sotheby’s executive vice president and Impressionist specialist, also on the phone with a client, from the mid-$60 million level through $74 million, when another Sotheby’s executive, Stephane Connery, entered with a $74 million bid. From there the contest narrowed to Moffett’s and Connery’s two clients and rose through the $80 million and $90 million levels until the hammer fell. Bidding stalled at $93 million when Connery’s bidder paused but eventually came back in.
As the price hit $99 million, Meyer said, “Don’t worry, I have all the time in the world.” The painting eventually sold to Moffett’s bidder, who sources have speculated is a major museum.
The Scream beat out previous $100 million auction records, including a Picasso piece titled Nude, Green Leaves and Bust, 1932, from the collection of Sidney Brody (part of the estate of his wife Frances Lasker Brody), that was sold at Christie’s New York, two years ago. Purchased by the Brodys from New York dealer Paul Rosenberg in January 1951 for less than $20,000, the work, a portrait of the artist’s lover Marie-Thérèse Walter, soared to a final price of $106.5 million with premium, against an unpublished estimate of $70 million/90 million. The second-highest price after this was $104.2 million, paid for Picasso’s Rose Period Garçon à la pipe, 1905, at Sotheby’s in May 2004.
Following the sale, Olsen spoke to a crowd of reporters, outlining his plans for a museum of Munch’s art in Hvitsten, where his family’s relationship with the artist began. Asked what he thought of his painting being the most expensive ever sold at auction, Olsen replied: “I’m pleased with that.” Five other works by Munch, from other private collections, were included in the sale, with just one failing to find a buyer. The highest of these was a painting titled Woman Looking in the Mirror, 1892, which sold for $5.1 million on a $5 million/7 million estimate.
Works from the Forstmann collection, including those by Matisse, Picasso, Fernand Léger, Chaïm Soutine, Pierre Bonnard and Joan Miró, also drew intense bidding. All but one of the 17 works offered were sold.
The highest of these was Picasso’s Femme Assise dans un fauteuil, 1941, a portrait of his lover Dora Maar. Estimated at $20 million/30 million, it sold to a phone bidder, via a Sotheby’s specialist, for $29.2 million, after competition from an underbidder in the room speaking on a cell phone.
Rivka Saker, senior director and chair of Sotheby’s Israel, was particularly active, bidding for and winning several Forstmann collection offerings for a single client.
These included a Matisse brush and ink on paper, Nature Morte. Fougères et grenades, 1947, which sold for $2.9 million, compared with an estimate of $1.2 million/1.6 million, as well as Georges Rouault’s Arlequin, ca. 1939, an oil on paper that was estimated at $400,000/600,000 and sold for $578,500. Saker also won two Picasso works for her client, including Baigneuse au pouf rouge, 1930, for $2.8 million (estimate: $700,000/1 million), and Deux femmes, 1930, for $2.1 million (estimate: $600,000/800,000).
As in recent seasons, Surrealist works by the top artists of the genre also continued to score strong prices, including Salvador Dalí’s Printemps Nécrophilique, 1936, which sold for $16.3 million, well above the estimate of $8 million/12 million, and Max Ernst’s painting depicting fellow Surrealist artist Leonora Carrington, Leonora in the Morning Light, 1940, which sold for $8 million, compared with an estimate of $3 million/5 million.
Among the sculpture featured in the sale, Constantin Brancusi’s ovoid, gilded bronze head, Prométhée, took $12.7 million after competitive bidding (estimate: $6 million/8 million).