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Munch’s ‘Scream’ sells for $119.9m at auction

Mario Tama/Getty Images

Edvard Munch’s masterpiece, painted in 1895, is a modern symbol for human anxiety.

Edvard Munch’s “The Scream’’ is not, as many assume, a picture of a person mid-scream. Rather, it depicts a person reacting with defensive horror to a scream – “an endless scream passing through nature,’’ as the artist himself put it.

Last night at around 8, some people reacted with defensive horror, others with squeals of delight when the last of four versions of “The Scream’’ still in private hands broke an all-time record for a work of art at auction.

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It sold for $107 million at Sotheby’s in New York - $119.9 with the sale charge included. The previous record was set by Picasso’s “Nude, Green Leaves and Bust,’’ which sold in 2010 for $95 million ($106.48 million with the sale charge).

The price attained by the Munch is remarkable. Not merely because of current economic conditions which, after all, seem not to be too onerous for the very rich. More because the work is not as singular as it seems.

It is the third of four versions of the subject Munch created (excluding lithographs). Two were created earlier, in 1893. This pastel was commissioned by the coffee magnate Arthur von Franquet in 1895.

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It was not even painted in oils on canvas - usually a prerequisite for high prices in the art market. It’s a frail-looking pastel on board.

So what makes it so special?

Munch’s “The Scream’’ is as famous as any art work in history - with the single exception of Leonardo’s “Mona Lisa.’’ It has become, as Patricia Berman, a Munch expert at Wellesley College says, a “touchstone - an image we use to structure our experience of life in extremis.’’

Just as importantly, this pastel is the only version of the subject that isn’t already in a Norwegian museum. Two of these museum versions were dramatically stolen in 1994 and 2004 (both were later recovered) which hasn’t hurt: the frisson of crime only adds to “The Scream’s’’ luster.

But the work that sold last night has inherent qualities, too. Munch intended it as a definite statement of the theme after two more tentative attempts. The colors are brighter, more deliberately dissonant.

He also inscribed on the frame a description of the incident that inspired the image. That description has become, among lovers of modern art, almost as famous as the image itself.

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