NEW YORK (Reuters) - Edvard Munch's "The Scream" could become the most expensive painting ever sold at auction on Wednesday if predictions that the work could fetch up to $150 million are to be believed.
The vibrant pastel, one of four versions by the Scandinavian artist and the only privately owned, is estimated to sell for $80 million when it goes under the hammer at Sotheby's in New York.
But London-based art expert Nicolai Frahm, of Frahm Ltd., believes the price could soar much higher.
"I think it will go to $150 million," he said in a telephone interview, which would smash the auction record of $106.5 million set by Pablo Picasso's "Nude, green leaves and bust" in 2010.
"This is the first time we have ever had such an iconic work up for sale," he added. "This painting is way more famous than the artist ever was."
Other independent art market experts have suggested a final price of around $125 million.
Sotheby's has gone to extraordinary lengths to safeguard the work. It is under 24-hour guard at its New York headquarters, where it is housed in a specially constructed mini-gallery behind a tension wire.
Two of the four Screams were stolen from museums in 1994 and 2004, but both were later recovered. Petter Olsen, whose father was a friend and neighbor of Munch's, is selling an 1895 version, planning to fund a museum with the proceeds.
Sotheby's said it set its estimate intuitively.
"$100 million feels like it might be a barrier," said David Norman, worldwide co-chairman of Impressionist and modern art. "But pictures like this -- where they end up going is a matter of momentum. It really is hard to predict. You're working at determining the price for one of the most unique and rare images of the past 150 years."
Norman said many art enthusiasts had expressed tremendous confidence in a sale price well beyond the pre-sale estimate. The painting's fame could push its price into the stratosphere.
"Occasionally there is a piece like this that is so famed that individuals who don't normally collect say 'I want one of the greatest paintings in the world,'" said Norman.
Simon Shaw, Sotheby's head of Impressionist and modern art in New York, noted that "The Scream" had only become more relevant, and ubiquitous, in recent years, in the context of geo-political and economic turmoil worldwide.
"Art has become extremely sexy. It's become a front-page sensation and gone into the mainstream," said Frahm. "Many more people look at art than they did 10 years ago."
Although most of the attention is focused on "The Scream," both Sotheby's and Christie's, whose sale starts on Tuesday, are boasting many other works worth hundreds of millions, especially in the post-war and contemporary arena.
"We could easily see new records," said Frahm.
Both houses are selling works from important private collections. Sotheby is handling the collection of financier Ted Forstmann, and the $100 million abstract expressionist-dominated Pincus collection will go under the hammer at Christie's.
"There's such a richness of offerings," said Christie's Americas president and chairman Marc Porter.
"Our abstract expressionist works are the best in 20 years," he said. "We have the best Rothko in a decade, the most important Pollack in 15 years."
Christie's Impressionist sale has a pre-sale estimate of up to $140 million. Its star lot, the recently rediscovered Cezanne watercolor study "Card Players, could sell for $20 million.
Its post-war sale, which is expected to take in as much as $350 million, is led by Philip Rothko's "Orange, Red, Yellow" abstract, which is expected to fetch about $40 million, and Yves Klein's "FC 1 (Fire-Color 1)," estimated to sell for about $35 million.
A group of six Richters should fetch more than $40 million.
At Sotheby's, Pablo Picasso's Dora Maar portrait, "Femme assise dans un fauteuil," is expected to fetch $25 million. Works by Chaim Soutine are also poised to draw strong prices.
Andy Warhol's "Double Elvis," with a pre-sale estimate of up to $50 million, is leading Sotheby's contemporary sale and Lichtenstein's "Sleeping Girl" and Francis Bacon's "Figure Writing Reflected in Mirror," could each fetch up to $40 million.
Reporting by Chris Michaud; editing by Patricia Reaney