What does $120,000,000 mean?

Yesterday at Sotheby’s, Edvard Munch’s pastel on board “The Scream” sold for a whopping $119,900,00.00 dollars, to an anonymous phone bidder.

At the most expensive art work ever sold at auction, what does this mean? Why is “The Scream” worth so much? I know that many (superior) websites and blogs have already written about this, but as a vehement fan of everything Edvard Munch, “The Scream” especially draws my attention.

1. It’s the last copy of “The Scream” available !

There are four editions of Munch’s “Scream”- three are in Norweigan museums. Rumors that a family in Qatar purchased the final pastel and board “Scream” are of course, just rumors, but it means that possibly the final “Scream” will be available to those outside Norway. (Unless the anonymous phone bidder was another Norwegian!) Basically, once this “Scream” is gone, there won’t be another coming up for bid unless the Norwegian museums become extraordinarily strapped for cash, which I doubt will occur.

2. This piece is iconic.

This doesn’t really need to be said, but it needs to be emphasized. “The Scream” ranks up with Da Vinci’s “The Mona Lisa” as far as pop culture influence goes. Everybody knows it. Too bad that Munch didn’t live to see his piece become so wonderful. Munch himself was a depressed man who died alone just before Norway was liberated in World War II. His life is punctuated by death, tragedy, and general melancholy. It’s a rare masterpiece by a fantastic Expressionist artist, something to be treasured more for it’s breakthrough technique and feeling rather than just for it’s popularity in our culture.

3. The name says it all.

Artists are a brandthese days. “I own a Matisse still life”, or “Yes, well this is a rare Goya that we have here!” are things that people like saying. Paintings by well known artists, especially good paintings, are harder and harder to come by, as they’ve been mostly snatched up by museums or private collectors. The opportunity to own a Rothko, a Picasso, or even a Munch is not one to be missed. Most of the masterpieces, from the Renaissance onward, are gone, and with them the chance to own a priceless piece of art. Every chance that is there must be seized, so to say.

4. Art is an investment (and a status symbol).

Since the 1990’s, art has been a solid investment of capital. Art prices have not been dipping, and while sometimes at the annual auctions with Christie’s and Sotheby’s the estimates end up being more than the final bid, art has been a winner for a solid 20+ years now. If you have the money, and you want the prestige, art is a perfect place to go. Corporations these days are even beginning to invest in art- notably Deutsche Bank, which has amassed an impressive collection and even gives tours of it’s collection.

5. Money doesn’t really seem to matter to some.

If you can pay $120 million for a piece of art, what can’t you buy? The art market in the last 20 years has underlined the fabulously wealthy and their want for some legitimacy in the world. Russia’s explosion into the art market,  Middle Eastern money, and South American and Asian dealers and elite are all vying for the few pieces that are worth buying, because the price is worth the class that comes with it. If you own eight homes, drive whatever car you fancy, and money is no object, picking up a fabulous piece at an auction seems almost compulsory.

My take on the auction: Money doesn’t matter, clearly, but I hope that whoever purchased “The Scream” makes it available to the public for at least a little while before it becomes cloistered in a private collection. If the bidder were to even let it tour a few major museums first, well, that would be most excellent!

I feel that the significance of “The Scream” was missed a bit, that perhaps sensationalism and rarity drove the price upward rather than the sheer talent that Munch possessed. “The Scream” was first created in 1892- an incredibly early date for such a modern, non-representational piece. It’s pure Expressionism, and much more abstract for it’s time than anything produced in the 19th century. Decades ahead, Munch’s “The Scream” has given the art world a look into his brilliant, tormented mind. I really hope that the significance of the piece isn’t lost on the bidder.

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4 thoughts on “What does $120,000,000 mean?

  1. I agree, I hope one day this ends up in a museum. While art certainly is an investment, spending 120 mil. on a painting is not really a strong investment. The value of art is tied to market interest, which changes. The Scream is certainly an exception since it is well-known, but if the buyer were to sell it again in a few decades, I don’t think he would make a high percent return on it.

    But how could you say ‘no’ to that face?

    • I suppose I should clarify that, especially with masterpieces and pieces by rare artists, the return is higher than with lesser-known pieces, sketches, or smaller works. The market seems to be definitely strong with the rarer pieces, for sure. Another part of the investment is the investment in social status and worth, also, something that can’t necessarily have a dollar sign tacked onto it.

      I find the entire art market so fascinating in general!

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