Better $120 Million Status Symbol: ‘The Scream’ or a Yacht?

May 3, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
One of the most iconic works of art in the world, a version of Edvard Munch's "The Scream," sold at a record price of $119.9 million in a much-hyped New York auction Wednesday night. Jeffrey Brown and The Wall Street Journal's Kelly Crow discuss what a 12-minute-long bidding war suggests about the state of the art market.

JEFFREY BROWN: And finally tonight, the art market lets out a large and pricey “Scream.”

TOBIAS MEYER, Sotheby’s auctioneer: I start the bidding here at $40 million, 41, 42, 43 already. At $43 million.

MAN: Forty-four.

TOBIAS MEYER: Forty-four is bid. Forty-five in the room?

JEFFREY BROWN: It’s one of the most iconic works in the world, Edvard Munch’s “The Scream.”

The Norwegian expressionist painter created four versions of it, three of which are hanging in museums in Oslo. The fourth, a pastel from 1895, is in private hands and was auctioned at Sotheby’s last night in a bidding war that came down to two undisclosed finalists making offers over the phone.

If you're going to spend your money on a yacht or a Munch, I probably would take the painting, too.Kelly Crow, The Wall Street Journal

TOBIAS MEYER: At $99 million. I have all the time in the world.


JEFFREY BROWN: The winner, anonymous, the price, a whole lot.

TOBIAS MEYER: Now the world record for any work of art sold at auction is this painting, Edvard Munch’s “The Scream.” And it made with buyers’s premium $119,900,000.


JEFFREY BROWN: And we’re joined now by Kelly Crow of The Wall Street Journal. She covers the art market and was at the auction last night.

Well, Kelly, in a strange — the strange world of the art market, what makes something worth $120 million?

KELLY CROW, The Wall Street Journal: Well, I’m still a little bleary-eyed. I’m still trying to get over being up to 2:00 a.m. I was pretty wired after the sale.

I’ve got to tell you, there is such an adrenaline rush to the theater of the auction room when you can go in thinking that a painting could go for $40 million, $80 million, and it only takes a handful of billionaires really to ratchet it up upwards of $120 million.

So some of it is just a fluke of the moment and then some is very well-thought-out strategy by some of the world’s wealthiest people about what they value most and where they really want to store their cash.

JEFFREY BROWN: The winner was anonymous, right? What are the clues or what’s the thinking on who might have got it?

KELLY CROW: Yeah, that’s sort of the parlor game of my day really is canvassing the, whatever, 1,700-odd billionaires around the world to try to see which one is hanging it up at home.

There are some clues. Charlie Moffett, who is a vice chairman at Sotheby’s, who fielded the winning telephone bid, he’s a former National Gallery guy here in the states. And he often pals around with some of the big American billionaires who collect modern art.

So, I’m kind of sticking for the moment at this continent. But certainly there were under-bidders from China who were in the game at least upwards of, you know, $95 million, and Europeans as well. So there were five at the start, and I think they pretty do — they probably reflect a global spread.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, you’re talking about scouring the world of billionaires. How does this fit into the larger art market, and why this particular painting, “The Scream?” Why would this be the one that sets a record at auction?

KELLY CROW: You’re coming in after about, you know, gosh, a decade of wealth creation around the world, and there are so many new people popping up sort of in all four corners who now really want to announce themselves to the world, announce their status, and also, you know, find safe places necessarily to store some income.

And art just feels like something that’s not going to evaporate like a stock or a bond maybe, given the vagaries of things. The painting, you feel like you could roll up and put in your suitcase, if you have to. So, that’s why — and also it’s just fun. I think baby boomers and the generations that have come after that are really savvy.

They do a lot of research on the Internet. They’re traveling a lot more, so they come across a lot more art. And they just — sort of this notion of having an original on the wall is something that feels attainable to them I think in a way that maybe, you know, to their great grandparents, you know, unless you were a blue blood, it didn’t even occur to you to try for that.

If you’re going to go for the gold, I think “The Scream” makes a pretty good case. It’s one of those rare paintings that you can just say the title of, and a good proportion of the world knows what you’re talking about. I think just the sheer branding power of that imagery is pretty compelling.

The painting that it outranked was a work by Picasso called “Nude, Green Leaves and Bust. And Picasso, iconic artist, but not everyone can conjure that image just by thinking of the title, whereas “The Scream” is really sort of a household name, you know, all by itself.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, it’s fun, you say. The prices keep going up and up. But is there a serious side? Is there a potential of a bubble here? What happens then?

KELLY CROW: Yeah. There’s always a risk when we’re talking about art.

And I think a lot of people probably do lull themselves into thinking that if they just buy a lot of art, that they will get their money back. And art is a certainly very risky, risky investment.

Only a handful of artists in any given century are going to wind up in the textbooks. So you gamble really big. And let’s hope you pick the winner. But odds are never very sure until the thing is done. With Munch, well-known, iconic Norwegian painter, one of those guys who really helped us switch, missing link guys, if you will, from, you know, impressionism to abstraction, one of those guys who was the first to really decide to paint his own tortured emotions, rather than the fields and the poppies around him.

So, he matters. He’s definitely in the textbooks. If you’re going to spend your money on a yacht or a Munch, I probably would take the painting, too.


JEFFREY BROWN: All right. Those of those who can take the painting right?

KELLY CROW: Sure. Why not?

JEFFREY BROWN: Kelly Crow of The Wall Street Journal, thanks so much.

KELLY CROW: Thanks a lot.