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The Scream sells for record $120m at auction

Edvard Munch's painting bought by unnamed telephone bidder during auction at Sotheby's in New York

To mere mortals it hardly seemed like a bargain but someone, somewhere, has decided that owning a rare version of Edvard Munch's 1895 painting, The Scream, was worth shelling out an eye-watering $119.9m (£74m).

The price, one of the highest ever paid for a work of art, was reached after just 12 minutes of bidding and paid by a so-far anonymous telephone bidder.

As the auctioneer's gavel came down at Sotheby's in New York, the crowd in the room cheered the remarkable event. Bidding had started at a relatively modest $50m with at least five interested parties but the field narrowed as the price sky-rocketed.

One of only four versions of the work in existence and widely regarded as the best, the painting sold on Thursday night is one of a handful of artistic images that have crossed over from the world of high art to popular culture.

It has inspired film references, from the knife-wielding villain of the Scream slasher movies to a famous scene in Home Alone, where child star Macauley Culkin imitated the painting's famous pose.

It is also celebrated by the therapy industry with its horrific depiction of stress and terror.

"This is not a a beautiful landscape in Surrey or a harbour on the French Riviera. It is a representation of extreme anxiety. Imagine if a shrink in London had this on their wall. It's a fantastic painting for their profession. Of course, they could not afford it," said Mark Winter, director of Munch Experts, a company specialising in appraising and valuing works by the Norwegian expressionist.

This version is the only one whose frame was hand-painted by the artist to include his poem explaining the work's inspiration. Munch described himself "shivering with anxiety" and feeling "the great scream in nature".

It was sold by Norwegian businessman Petter Olsen, whose father was a friend and patron of the artist. Proceeds of the sale will fund a new museum, art centre and hotel in Hvitsten, Norway, where Olsen's father and Munch were neighbours.

"It is a unique chance for someone to acquire this version. It is the crown jewel of the four but you really need a national budget to buy it. And not the budget of a small country either," said Winter.

The Scream will join a select group of works that have sold for more than $100m, including Picasso's Nude, Green Leaves, and Bust, which sold in 2010 for $106.5m.

Yet even that hefty price tag feels like a snip compared with the staggering $250m paid by oil-rich Qatar to snag Paul Cezanne's The Card Players for a new art museum. Details of the deal struck in 2011 only emerged earlier this year.

Simon Shaw, head of Sotheby's Impressionist and Modern Art in New York, said the work was one of the most important to ever emerge from private hands on to the open market.

"Instantly recognisable, this is one of the very few images which transcends art history and reaches a global icon. The Scream arguably embodies even greater power today than when it was conceived," he said. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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