Let the art market roar. Norwegian painter Edvard Munch became the most expensive artist at auction Wednesday when his 1895 pastel of a terrified man clutching his cheeks along an Oslo fjord, “The Scream,” sold for $119.9 million at Sotheby’s—the most ever paid for a work of art at auction.
The purchase surpasses the $106.5 million spent two years ago for Pablo Picasso’s 1932 portrait of his mistress, “Nude, Green Leaves and Bust,” as well as Alberto Giacometti’s earlier record of $104.3 million for his 1960 spindly bronze sculpture, “Walking Man I.”
In a dogged contest at the auction house’s New York saleroom, the bidding for Munch’s “Scream” began at $40 million and shot up quickly, with five bidders from the U.S. and China competing for the sunset-colored portrait. Charlie Moffett, a Sotheby’s specialist who represents American buyers, fielded the anonymous winning bid by phone.
The record-setting Munch was considered a plum as much for its rarity as for its pop-culture ubiquity. One of four versions of “The Scream” that Munch created, this version was the only one not in an Oslo museum and the first to ever come up at auction. The image has also been reproduced on everything from ice-cream containers to the villain’s mask in Wes Craven’s “Scream” horror films.
The work had been priced to sell for about $80 million. Sale prices, unlike estimates, include the auction house’s commission, which is 25% on the first $50,000, 20% up to $1 million and 12% above $1 million.
The sale reflects the trophy-hunting atmosphere buoying the global art market, as billionaires around the world vie for the few masterpieces that come up for sale in any given season. Bragging rights are at stake, but their collective bidding has also helped recalibrate price levels for dozens of top artists.
Outside the auction houses, artworks have already traded for even more: Five years ago, Chicago collector Stefan Edlis sold Andy Warhol piece “Turquoise Marilyn” to hedge-fund billionaire Steven Cohen for at least $80 million. Dealers say Greek shipping magnate George Embiricos sold his Paul Cezanne painting, “Card Players,” to an anonymous buyer last year for at least $250 million. Details of that $250 million sale remain cloudy in part because Mr. Embiricos died last fall, and no buyer for his record-setting painting has since stepped forward. Dealers say the likely buyers include Qatar’s royal family, which declined to comment, and billionaires from Greece and Russia.
“There’s a lot of money out there now, and it doesn’t take many billionaires to push up a price,” said Mr. Edlis, the Chicago collector, before the sale. “You can only buy so many yachts, and a painting is so much better to look at than a bankbook.” Mr. Edlis said he didn’t plan to enter the fray on the Munch.
Elsewhere in Sotheby’s sale, collectors also chased after a group of works coming from the estate of financier Theodore Forstmann, a pioneer in the leveraged-buyout business. Mr. Forstmann was the senior founding partner of the investment firm Forstmann Little & Co., and chairman and CEO of IMG Worldwide Holdings, Inc.
Leading this group of colorful, modern paintings and bronze sculptures was Picasso’s $29.2 million “Woman Sitting in a Chair” from 1941, and Chaim Soutine’s $9.3 million “The Hunter of Maxim’s” from 1925.
“The Scream” carries its own mystique, having come from the collection of Petter Olsen, a Norwegian real-estate developer and shipping heir who grew up with the work in the living room of his childhood home. His father, Thomas Olsen, a neighbor of Munch’s in the small Norwegian town of Hvitsten, bought the work from the German coffee magnate who likely commissioned it. During World War II, Mr. Olsen said his family hid the work along with dozens of other Munch artworks in a hay barn to protect them from the Nazis, who were destroying artworks they deemed degenerate. Mr. Olsen has said he offered up “The Scream” now in order to fund a museum of Munch’s work in Hvitsten to open next year.
The work itself depicts a bald, skeletal figure in a blue shirt standing at a popular suicide spot on Oslo’s horseshoe-shaped bay where people could often hear screams from a nearby insane asylum, according to art historians. Munch’s sister, who had been diagnosed with schizophrenia, was housed in that asylum. (There’s still debate over whether Munch’s character is actually screaming or using his hands to muffle the sound of surrounding screams.)
The third in a series created between 1893 and 1910, Sotheby’s version was created with pastel on rough board and offered in its original frame, which is inscribed with an 1892 poem Munch wrote that inspired the work. In the poem, he says he was walking beside that fjord when he sensed “an infinite scream passing through nature.”
Historians hail Munch for breaking away from the Impressionists who still held sway over the art world in the late 19th century. Instead of playing with light and shadow to capture the world around him, Munch experimented with ways to visualize his own tormented emotions—a shift that helped pave the way for the Expressionists like Egon Schiele along with later Abstract Expressionists like Mark Rothko.