As a vision of a human loss and despair, The Scream has few equals. But Edvard Munch's iconic painting was the cause of unbridled celebration yesterday, after Norwegian police announced the recovery of the stolen masterpiece.
Some two years after the picture was stolen in an armed raid, along with another priceless Munch work, the paintings were returned largely unscathed and without payment of a reward.
Masked gunmen stole The Scream and the second work, Madonna, in a brazen daylight theft from the Munch Museum in Oslo in August 2004.
The raid was seen as an assault on Norway's history and culturemaking the recovery of the works a matter of national pride. The day after the theft, one Norwegian paper carried the headline: "The world screams".
The massive operation to recover the art works, which earlier this year resulted in the conviction of three of the gang involved in the theft, included Norway's largest ever surveillance operation with the tapping of 70,000 phone calls.
But, until yesterday afternoon, the missing paintings, worth an estimated £120m, had remained elusive despite the offering of a £163,000 reward by the City of Oslo, the owner of the paintings.
With obvious relief, the head of the police investigation, Iver Stensrud, told a hastily convened press conference that the paintings had been recovered in a police operation and had suffered little damage.
He said the works had been authenticated by an art expert and now awaited a scientific examination. "The pictures came into our hands this afternoon after a successful police action. All that remains is an expert examination to confirm with 100 per cent certainty that these are the original paintings.
"I saw the paintings myself today and there was far from the damage that could have been feared," he added.
Staff at the Munch Museum, which had been criticised for its security system in the wake of the thefts, expressed delight at the return of The Scream, one of four versions of Munch's figure which has become a much-copied image of existential angst. Gro Balas, who chairs the Munch Museum board, said: "I am almost crying from happiness. They have been given a cursory examination, but for now I am content just to feel overjoyed."
Police declined to reveal further details of the recovery operation. They said the paintings had probably remained in Norway since the theft.
Two masked and hooded gunmen burst into the Munch Museum on a Sunday morning in 2004, threatened four unarmed guards, ordered 80 visitors to lie on the floor and ripped the two paintings from the wall before fleeing in a getaway vehicle.
Police speculated that the raid had been ordered by the Norwegian crime baron and former chess player David Toska, to distract attention from a bank robbery in which a policeman was killed. Toska was later convicted of masterminding that robbery.
In May this year, three men were convicted for driving the getaway vehicle, and supplying and selling the car knowing it would be used in a theft.
They were ordered to pay £66m in compensation in an attempt to pressure them into revealing the works' whereabouts.
But despite the fact that the Munch Museum works, which were so valuable they were un-insurable for theft, could never be sold, it seems the gang members were not persuaded to break their silence. Police said the paintings had been found without the help of the convicted men.
The last time one of The Scream canvases was stolen, in 1994, it was returned after three months.
The Scream and Madonna, showing a bare-breasted woman with long black hair, were completed by Munch in about 1893 as part of a series exploring love, anxiety, sickness and death.Reuse content