Saturday - 25 October 2014

Munch’s masterpiece for sale

27 February 2012Written by Roland Arkell

THE term ‘masterpiece’ is all too commonplace in auctioneering hyperbole, but just occasionally it rings true.

Edvard Munch's The Scream, is both an icon of global visual culture, referenced by everyone from Andy Warhol to The Simpsons, and the defining image of the Expressionist movement.

Sotheby's will offer the only version of the composition still in private hands for sale in New York on May 2.

"I have lived with this work all my life, and its power and energy have only increased with time," said consignor Petter Olsen, the Norwegian businessman whose father Thomas was a key Munch patron.

The Scream will be on view at Sotheby's in London from April 13 and in New York from April 27 prior to sale.

Munch (1863-1944) created four versions of his essay on existential dread.

The prime example, worked in 1893 from tempera and crayon on board, is in the National Gallery of Norway; another pastel version from the same year (thought to be a preliminary sketch) is in the Munch Museum in Oslo, also home to a later version in tempera and oil on board, probably completed in 1910.

The Olsen picture, in pastel on board, most closely follows the prime composition in the National Gallery and is dated 1895, the year Munch created a lithograph of the image which helped spark the process of its mass proliferation.

Of the four works, it is the most colourful and is the only version in which one of the two figures in the background turns to look outward onto the cityscape, and the only one with an original frame painted by the artist to include his poem detailing the work's inspiration.

Unlike the other versions (two of them the subject of high-profile thefts but now back on display), it has been in the collection of the Olsen family for over 70 years and its only public exhibition was a brief display in the National Gallery in Washington D.C. decades ago.

Thomas Olsen, scion of the great ship-owning dynasty, was a collector and supporter of Munch from the late 1920s. Neighbours at Hvitsten in Norway, the young businessman's role grew from friend to patron and eventually to protector of the artist's works.

Olsen was instrumental in rescuing many 'degenerate' Munchs pulled from Germany's federal and state galleries by the Nazi regime - 74 paintings that were transported to Sandbu, a family farm in the district of Vaagaa, for safekeeping between 1940 and liberation in 1945.

"My father hoped that his collection would further Munch's international renown," said Petter Olsen. "In that tradition, proceeds from this sale will go toward the establishment of a new museum, art centre and hotel on my farm, Ramme Gaard at Hvitsten, Norway. It will open next year in connection with the 150th anniversary of Munch's birth, and will be dedicated to the artist's work and time there. We are restoring his house and studio, and guests can stay in his home."

So what could The Scream be worth in a market which, according to recent reports, can stomach $250m for a version of Cezanne's Card Players?

Simon Shaw, head of Sotheby's Impressionist & Modern Art department in New York, described the painting as "one of the most important works of art in private hands. Given how rarely true icons come to the market, it is difficult to predict The Scream's value. The price could exceed $80m."

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