The Scream expected to fetch $80m at auction

'Mona Lisa of the Modern era' goes on sale – and it's making a big noise in the art world

The Scream, one of the most alarming paintings of all time, is expected to fetch more than $80m (£50m) when it goes under the hammer this spring.

The only version of Edvard Munch's iconic painting left in private hands will lead a sale at Sotheby's in New York this May as the market for big-name artists shows no sign of receding.

Philip Hook, senior specialist in impressionist and modern art at Sotheby's, said: "This is one of the most important works of modern art we have ever sold."

Sotheby's believes that The Scream may be second only to the Mona Lisa as one of the most recognisable works of art, and points out that it has influenced Andy Warhol and The Simpsons.

Munch painted this version of The Scream in 1895 as the central part of his Frieze of Life series. One expert on the artist said: "He looms large in the imagination. The Scream may not look particularly striking or shocking these days, but at the time it was radical. It was all about expressing the psychological state."

Sotheby's said that accurately valuing the painting was difficult because it was rare that "true icons" come to the market. Recent sales of masterpieces at the auction house "suggest that the price could exceed $80m". Sotheby's currently holds the record for a Munch sale when the work Vampire was bought for $38.1m in New York in 2008.

The art market has this year shrugged off the gloom enveloping the wider economy. In a series of auctions in London, works by artists including Francis Bacon, Gerhard Richter and Mark Rothko raised tens of million of pounds.

This comes soon after the emirate of Qatar paid a world-record sum of $250m to buy Cezanne's The Card Players in a private sale. One auction expert said Middle-Eastern buyers were likely to be involved in this bidding process for The Scream. "They have a lot of museums and are looking to fill them with high-quality pieces," the expert said.

Munch completed four versions of the work. Three are in Norwegian museums. The piece going up for auction is owned by Petter Olsen, whose father Thomas was a friend and patron of the artist. The 1893 version and the 1910 version have both been stolen from different Norwegian museums, but both were recovered and remain on display.

Mr Hook said: "It speaks to the anxiety and alienation of modern man. It is the image that launched a thousand therapists." This version is more vibrant than the others and has a poem painted onto the frame by the artist.

Petter Olsen said: "I have lived with this work all my life, and its power and energy have only increased with time. Now, however, I feel the moment has come to offer the rest of the world a chance to own and appreciate this remarkable work."

The Norwegian businessman said the proceeds would establish a new museum, art centre and hotel at his farm, opening next year to coincide with the 150th anniversary of Munch's birth.

A major exhibition of the artist's work is to open in the UK later this year, when Edvard Munch: The Modern Eye opens at the Tate Modern in June.

Sketchy past: Thefts and recovery

The Sotheby's sale presents the opportunity for The Scream to leave Norwegian ownership for the first time – the other three versions are all owned by domestic museums. Munch painted the prime example of the expressionist work in 1893, which hangs in Norway's National Gallery.

A pastel version painted in the same year is thought to be a preliminary sketch for the work and is owned by the Munch Museum in Oslo. That museum also owns a 1910 version. The image became more widely known after Munch created a lithograph of it in 1895.

In 1994, the year Norway hosted the Olympic Winter Games, thieves stole the 1893 version from the National Gallery. Following a sting operation it was returned the same year. A decade later, masked gunmen stole the 1910 version. It was recovered two years later.

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