Y! Big Story: The high price of “The Scream” and other art sales

Vera H-C Chan
Senior Editor, Special Projects
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Everything you need to know to get up to speed on the big story of the day

Can't afford $119,922,500 for a pastel? A poster will run you about $19.99.

The 12 minutes of art-auction hysteria has led to yet another re-evaluation of, if not outrage about, the price we put on art and who gets to "own" it. The bidder(s) for the pastel of Edvard Munch's "The Scream" remains anonymous, but hammer prices like that in an economy like this has raised questions on who's driving up these high-profile sales lately. For some critics, the lopsided economics highlight that yawning gulf between art buyers and artists (that 1% thing again), with art lovers lost somewhere in the middle.

In the case of Munch, though, the $119 million isn't just getting renewed respect for the revered artist right before his sesquicentennial birthday: Devotees will be able to visit the source of "The Scream" for themselves.

Why the record-breaking art sales: Aside from "The Scream," Sotheby's did gangbusters in its May 2 auction. The $330,568,550 take was the house's "highest-ever total for a sale of Impressionist & Modern Art worldwide, and the second-highest total for a Sotheby's auction in any category."

The house isn't disclosing  information about the buyer. ("Unfortunately, we will not be able to comment publicly on those internal processes, which are specific to each work we sell," Sotheby's told Yahoo!.) What we do know is that auction houses have been on a run as of late, fueled by a growing international marketplace. For instance, CNN reported that "Islamic Week"-themed auctions in London "saw records fall for centuries-old pieces and contemporary creations alike." China's new moneyed class has led a spending spree to retrieve its classics, such as the 2011 sale of the 1946 Qi Baishi painting for $67.5 million.

"The mainstream mega art galleries are moving to the source of money," Gary Armstrong, an artist and faculty member at the Art Institute of New York explains to Yahoo!. Aside from motives of reclaiming art, the new world elite wants to establish footing—and nothing builds a profile faster than eye-popping bids.

The disconnect from contemporary artists: The big payouts are actually running counter to the current creative movement, Armstrong points out. "The artists today are making smaller, more personable art rather than grandiose kind of high art, if you will," he said. That particular market, these days comparatively "sluggish," highlights the "schism between have and have-nots."

That sentiment seems to be shared by UCLA professor and artist Andrea Fraser. She kicked up some controversy with her 2011 essay "L'1%, C'est Moi" ("The 1%, It's Me"), and argued that artists needed to take responsibility to stop art from being a "luxury goods business."

The economic research I cite in my essay indicates that in the past decade, a 1% increases in the share of total income earned by the top 0.1% has triggered a 14% increase in art prices.... My concern is not with people in the financial sector specifically, but with the very direct link—quantified in recent economic research—between the art market boom and economic inequality that has reached levels not seen since the 1920s in the US and the '40s in Britain.' ("How the art market became a luxury goods business," Phaidon)

Where the $119,922,500 will go: The good news is, the record sale of "The Scream" might actually ultimately serve a public cause. Seller Petter Olsen—the son of the original owner and Munch's patron and pal who helped the artist hide his works from the Nazis—plans to take those proceeds to found a museum, art center, and hotel in Hvisten, Norway, where Munch resided from 1910 to 1944.

Next year I plan to participate in the 150th anniversary celebrations in Norway of the birth of Edvard Munch. I am currently building a gallery which will house my private collection of local art by Munch and other artists. I am also restoring his house and studios close by where he finished the project for the Oslo University Auditorium Decorations one hundred years ago. I am collaborating with the Oslo Munch Museum on an exhibition with this theme. The opening will be on 2 June 2013. Later we will also open a small hotel on the premises on my farm Rammegaard just a short distance south of Oslo by the fjord. (Petter Olsen, in a statement provided to Sotheby's)

Other places to find "The Scream" in the meantime: Munch did several versions of "The Scream" and a lithograph, so his work could be reprinted. All known copies are in museums save the crayon pastel that sold May 2, including Munch Museum in Oslo and the National Gallery of Norway, which houses the most familiar 1893 example. Not that "The Scream" wasn't omnipresent already, but the same contagion that makes people buy lottery tickets or weave rooster feathers in their hair has prodded a bump in poster sales: It's a  "top seller" at Art.com.

[Related: Pricey Pictures]

"The Scream" on suicide hill, and what the drawing means: Simply, a work of art's meaning lies with artist's intentions, the cultural issues of the day, and the social perspective of the person viewing that piece of work.

As the defining image of the Expressionist movement, The Scream stands as a pivotal work in the history of art. Munch created the image in the mid-1890s as the central element of his celebrated Frieze of Life series. The powerfully rendered, blood-red sky presents the viewer with the reality of Munch's experience at the moment he is gripped by anxiety in the hills above Oslo. Like his Dutch contemporary Vincent van Gogh, Munch's desire was to paint a new form of reality rooted in psychological experience, rather than visual. It is this projection of Munch's mental state that was so artistically innovative — a landscape of the mind, whose impact is still felt in the art of today. (Sotheby's)

Factually, Munch set his tortured skeletal creature on Ekeberg Hill. Two black figures in the back perpetually take in the view of the south of Oslo. The setting was also a known suicide jumping-off point.

View of Ekeberg

As for his tearing inspiration, Munch—a long-lived but agonized soul himself—documented the moment in his diary.

I was walking along a path with two friends the sun was setting I felt a breath of melancholy Suddenly the sky turned blood-red I stopped and leant against the railing, deathly tired looking out across flaming clouds that hung like - blood and a sword over the deep blue fjord and town My friends walked on - I stood there trembling with anxiety And I felt a great, infinite scream pass through nature. (1892, entry from Edvard Munch's diary)