Munch’s The Scream raises market ceiling and overturns art media hierarchy



Wednesday, May 2, the art market acquired a new all-time record for the sale of an artwork at a public auction when Sotheby’s New York sold of MUNCH’s The Scream for $107m ($119.9m including fees).
This result substantially outranks Pablo PICASSO’s global all-time record for Nude, Green leaves and Bust which fetched $95m on 4 May 2010 at Christie’s New York. In fact, since 1990, only three new global records (in dollars) have been set: $75m for Vincent VAN GOGH’s Portrait du docteur Gachet on 15 May 1990; $93m for Le garçon à la pipe by Pablo PICASSO on 5 May 2004, who then beat his own record on 4 May 2010 with Nude, Green leaves and Bust ($95m).

However, the most astonishing aspect of this result is that the work in question is in fact a drawing!
Fifteen years ago, we were still in a world with a clearly defined artistic media hierarchy in which painting and sculpture were the two media favoured by major collectors, institutions and investors.
In recent years the increasing scarcity of works by the world’s most recognised artists coupled with the iconic dimension that certain works have acquired in the collective memory has completely overturned the traditional hierarchy. Drawing is no longer and will never more be considered a poor relation to painting. Several years ago, the record result for RAPHAEL’s Head of a Muse ($42.7m on 8 December 2009 at Christie’s London) already suggested that this hierarchy was crumbling. The Munch’s record confirms this trend, especially as over the last ten years (January 2002 – January 2012) the price index for drawings has progressed more than 197% versus 161% for that of painting.

Art has always been a symbolic value and a work like Edvard MUNCH’s The Scream, which condenses in a single image of just 79 x 59 cm the entire anguish of humanity, can be considered the “Mona Lisa of Expressionism”.

In just one adjudication, the Norwegian artist has completely outperformed his 2011 revenue total ($7,645,527 from 82 lots ) and has gained the potential to climb to a substantially higher level in the global ranking of artists by annual auction revenue (219th in 2011).

The same day, Christie’s held an Impressionist & Modern Art sale at which works by Marc CHAGALL, Wassily KANDINSKY, Pablo PICASSO, Vincent VAN GOGH, Pierre-Auguste RENOIR and Henry MARTIN all fetched bids above $500,000. The sale’s best result was for a sculpture by Ernst BARLACH, Weinende Frau (1923). With a winning bid of $938,500 against an estimate of $200,000 – $300,000, this set a new world record for the artist and – after the Munch record – confirmed the current price inflation for Expressionist art.

Expressionism: +46% since 2000

Expressionism, a movement that marked Northern Europe with its revolutionary expressiveness in the early twentieth century, is still enjoying steady price inflation (+46% since 2000). Among the leading figures of this movement, the most popular at auction are Edvard MUNCH, as well as August MACKE, Franz MARC, Gabriele MÜNTER, Emil NOLDE, Hermann Max PECHSTEIN, Alexej VON JAWLENSKY, Ernst Ludwig KIRCHNER and Egon SCHIELE.
Sotheby’s and Christie’s each had works on paper by Egon SCHIELE in their May sales catalogues: on 1 May, Christie’s sold a superb pencil drawing of a nude (29.5 x 46 cm) dated 1918 for $600,000 (its high estimate) and the next day Sotheby’s sold Schiele’s Two friends (Zwei Freundinnen), with subtly enhanced flesh colours for $1.65m.The best Schiele watercolour nudes go for between $5 and 10m and the number of million-dollar results for these works is accelerating: in the 90s only two Schiele drawings fetched 7-figures (at auction) whereas since 2000 there have been 55 results above this threshold!

$17m for a drawing by Paul Cezanne
The most emblematic and most sought-after works by Paul CÉZANNE are undoubtedly his still lifes, his Sainte Victoire landscapes and his card players. On 1 May Christie’s offered a work depicting a lonely card player, a very accomplished study in watercolour; indeed probably the best ever presented at auction on this theme. This work on paper (46.7 x 30.5 cm) fetched $17m, not a surprising score (within the estimate range) given the notoriety of the subject and the market’s awareness of a recent acquisition by Qatar’s royal family of a version of the Joueurs des Cartes (1895, oil on canvas) for $ 250 million in a private transaction to acquire the piece for the Doha National Museum of Modern Art (Museum chaired by Sheikha Al Mayassa, sister of the Emir of Qatar).
Note also that Cezanne now exceeds Picasso in the drawing medium: the former’s top price is $22.75m for Art Market Confidence Index in watercolour and pencil (1902 to 1906, 31.5 x 47.5 cm, Sotheby’s, 8 May 2007) while the latter’s top price for a drawing is $12.8m for Famille de l’Arlequin in 1989 (Christie’s NY).
Cezanne’s watercolour was indeed the star lot of this Christie’s sale and generated the best result of the evening, along with Henri MATISSE’s Les pivoines. This oil on canvas, painted in Collioure in 1907, was exhibited that year at the Bernheim-Jeune gallery. Its intense colours and free brushwork make it a powerful example of the end of Fauvism.At the next Contemporary Art sales in May (8 and 9 in New York), Sotheby’s will be offering Roy LICHTENSTEIN, Andy WARHOL and Francis BACON with works estimated between $30m and $40m. At Christie’s, an equally impressive price range is given for FC 1, a monumental and iconic work by Yves KLEIN whose auction record currently stands at $21m (MG 9, 14 May 2008, Sotheby’s).