NEW YORK — Sometimes beauty is trumped by the beast. After bullish expectations and an aggressive marketing campaign for an image considered the quintessential expression of modern horror, Sotheby’sNew York sold Edvard Munch ‘s 1895 “The Scream” for $119.9 million on Wednesday night, setting a record for the most expensive artwork sold at auction.
The top spot was previously held by Picasso’s 1932 “Nude, Green, Leave and Bust” — a painting of his much-younger lover Marie-Therese Walter that sold at Christie’s in 2010 for $106.5 million.
The identity of the buyer, who was bidding by phone during the 12-minute auction, has not been confirmed. Bidding started at $40 million, with at least five bidders. Rumors before the sale, not confirmed, focused on interest from the royal family of Qatar.
Munch’s “The Scream” achieved another milestone: It now ranks as the most expensive drawing publicly sold. For this version of “The Scream” — one of four — is best described as a crayon or pastel drawing, not a painting, on board. The Munch Museum in Oslo  owns a pastel as well as a painted version, while the National Gallery of Norway holds the earliest painting, dated 1893.
And it easily beat out the previous auction record for Munch, also held by Sotheby’s . In 2008, the auction house sold the 1894 Munch painting “Vampire,” a melodramatic image of a red-haired, bare-armed woman kissing a man’s neck, for about $38 million.
Judd Tully, the art-market expert who is editor at large of Art+Auction magazine, said it was hard to identify the potential pool of buyers. “Under a dozen collectors have been identified who would buy something north of $50 million, and the number gets lower as the prices go up,” he said before the sale.
But in the case of such a “powerful and famous image,” he added, “there could be someone outside of that club who has fallen prey to the marketing campaign or just decided they wanted the image.”
The central image in this artwork is the gaping-mouthed, skull-like face and twisting torso that people know so well from reproductions, cartoons and a seemingly endless stream of merchandise, from shower curtains to neckties. The location depicted is Ekeberg Hill, an overlook point in the south of Oslo that was known as the scene of suicides.
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