The painting is instantly recognisable as the work of the Norwegian artist, who is famed for his haunting picture The Scream, and Christie's says it will be one of the saleroom highlights of the year. The previous record for a Munch is pounds 4.8m.
Jussi Pylkkanen, the senior director of the auctioneer's Impressionist picture department, said: "It is an iconic picture and much more important the Van Gogh's Sunflowers, although that might appeal to a wider range of people. It is the most important painting I have handled in 13 years at Christie's and although it may not be commercially the most expensive it is monumental."
The painting forms part of Munch's celebrated Frieze of Life series, which also includes The Scream. It is one of only four Madonnas he painted; the other three are in museums.
This is the first time the painting has been offered at auction. It is the most experimental of the four works. The paints were thinned with turpentine to the point where they dripped and bled all over the canvas, areas of which were left bare. A Christie's spokeswoman said: "His aim was to represent Woman from the point of view of her lover, at the moment of conception. He described the moment as `being when life and death join hands'."
During the 1890s, when the painting was done, Munch was obsessed with the themes of love, death, fear and desire, and he wanted to bring them together in one image. These emotions all played a central part in the creation of his life-long project The Frieze.
The model for the Madonna is generally assumed to be the daughter of a Norwegian doctor friend of Munch, Dagny Juell. The artist was obsessed with her and she became his muse. An independent and modern woman who advocated free love and who reputedly drank absinthe by the litre without getting drunk, Juell was adored by most of Munch's friends at the Berlin bar where they gathered.
The painting was first exhibited in Stockholm in 1894 and was included in the most important exhibition of the inter-war years, the great Berlin retrospective of 1927. It has been in several big exhibitions of the artist's work but was part of a private collection for many years.Reuse content