LONDON (Reuters) - Sotheby's will offer the only privately owned version of Edvard Munch's haunting work "The Scream" at an auction in New York on May 2 where it expects to fetch over $80 million, the highest pre-sale value the auctioneer has ever put on a work of art.
The 1895 work is owned by Norwegian businessman Petter Olsen, whose father Thomas was a friend, neighbor and patron of Munch, the auctioneer said on Tuesday.
There are four versions of the famous depiction of a figure facing out with its hands to its ears apparently screaming. The three others belong to Norwegian museum collections.
Simon Shaw, senior vice president and head of Sotheby's Impressionist & Modern Art department in New York, called the pastel-on-board creation "one of the most important works of art in private hands.
"Given how rarely true icons come to the market it is difficult to predict The Scream's value," he added in a statement. "The recent success of masterpieces at Sotheby's suggests that the price could exceed $80 million."
The auctioneer called The Scream one of the most instantly recognizable images in art and popular culture, second only perhaps to Leonardo Da Vinci's "Mona Lisa".
The painting seeks to communicate Munch's anxiety in the hills above Oslo and has been interpreted by many as the embodiment of modern-day anxiety and existential angst.
"It's an image that has burnt itself into our collective retina," Shaw told Reuters, speaking to the painting's iconic and world renowned status.
Global turbulence in recent decades "has only made it more ubiquitous and well-known," Shaw said, noting that the painting had been on the cover of Time magazine back in 1961.
Sotheby's drew comparisons with Munch's Dutch contemporary Vincent Van Gogh, as both artists strived to put their psychological experiences on canvas.
It also said the version on offer at its impressionist and modern art evening auction was the "most colorful and vibrant" of the four images and the only one in which one of the figures in the background turns to look at the cityscape.
The work also features a hand-painted inscription on its frame in which Munch explains his motivation for image. It includes the lines "My Friends walked on-I remained behind/shivering with Anxiety-I felt the great Scream in Nature."
Olsen said proceeds from the sale would go toward building a new museum, art centre and hotel at his farm in Norway.
His father, Thomas, was the scion of a ship-owning family who supported Munch from the late 1920s, and the men were neighbors at Hvitsten in Norway.
During the Nazi regime, Munch's works were declared "degenerate" and removed from the great public German collections. Olsen stepped in to help rescue 74 of the works, probably saving them from destruction.
Before Olsen and his family fled Norway for Britain in 1940, he transported his art collection, including the work now being sold, to Sandbu, a family farm where it remained until Norway's liberation in 1945.
Two other versions of The Scream have been the subject of high-profile art thefts in recent years.
In 1994, two thieves entered the National Gallery of Norway and fled with the museum's 1893 version of The Scream. A successful sting operation brought the work back to the museum later that year, unharmed.
A decade later, masked gunmen stole Munch's 1910 version of The Scream, as well as his Madonna, from the Munch Museum, also in Oslo. Both works were recovered two years later, and went back on exhibition in 2008.
Shaw said that museum attendance spiked after the first theft as patrons were drawn to the blank wall space where the work had hung, attesting to its drawing power.
Exhibitions of The Scream in London and New York before the sale will provide a rare opportunity to see the work, as museums holding the other three versions do not lend them out.
Given history, with two of the four works having been stolen in the past 20 years, intense security can be expected.
"We are conscious of the unique circumstances, and will be taking all necessary measures to ensure the safety of the work," Shaw said, while declining outline specific plans.
Reporting by Mike Collett-White, Additional reporting by Chris Michaud; editing by Paul Casciato and Bob Tourtellotte