Modernist icon 'The Scream' may sell for £50 million

Sotheby's is to auction the only privately-owned version of Edvard Munch's painting. Nick Clark

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The Independent Online

The Scream, one of the most recognisable paintings in history, is expected to fetch more than $80 million (£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 The Scream may be second only to the Mona Lisa as one of the most recognisable works of art.

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 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 holds the record for a Munch sale when his 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 Qatar paid a world-record sum of $250m to buy Cezanne's The Card Players. One auction expert said Middle-Eastern buyers were likely to be involved in this bidding process for The Scream.

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 on to 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. I feel the moment has come to offer the rest of the world a chance to own and appreciate this remarkable work."

An exhibition of Munch's work, Edvard Munch: The Modern Eye, opens at Tate Modern in June.