Sotheby’s has unveiled two paintings by Norwegian artist Edvard Munch to go up for auction during its cross-category evening sale at their London headquarters on March 25. Together, the two early 20th century works, a commissioned frieze and a self-portrait, are expected to fetch £13.5 million ($18.5 million).
Each of the works are coming to sale from the collection of Norwegian Munch patron, Thomas Olsen.
Completed in 1904, Summer Day or Embrace on the Beach (The Linde Frieze) depicts a couple against a bucolic shoreline; it was painted as part of a commission for a nursery room in the family home of Lübeck-based doctor, Max Linde. Estimated to sell for £9 million-£12 million ($12 million-$16 million), the Linde Frieze was based on Munch’s seminal 1890s project Frieze of Life, exhibited at the Berlin Secession in 1902. In this series, the artist began developing his melancholic style, exploring love, jealously, anxiety and separation at the turn of the century.
According to Sotheby’s, Munch added the embracing figures on the left— a recurring motif of couples between union and rift—at a later date.
The later work set to go under the hammer at Sotheby’s, Self-Portrait with a Palette (1926), is an outdoor scene of the artist holding a set of brushes and painting palette. It was last exhibited in 2015-16 in the exhibition “Munch: Van Gogh” at the Munch Museet in Oslo and Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. The image is one Munch painted in several variations. Another paint of the artist Self Portrait with Brushes from
Munch is among a handful of artists who have achieved the highest auction prices in history. In May 2012, the image with which Munch is most widely associated, The Scream (1893), made for the Frieze of Life series, sold for $120 million at Sotheby’s to financier Leon Black.
Munch’s work was targeted by the Nazi regime in 1933 when it condemned the work of 112 artists in a campaign to defame the modern avant-garde movement. Eighty-three of Munch’s works, many of which were held in museum collections, were confiscated by the Nazis. Self-Portrait with a Palette (1926), which was purchased by the Mannheim Kunstalle in 1926 directly from the artist, was removed from the collection in 1937. Embrace On the Beach, which Berlin’s National galerie acquired in 1931 was deaccessioned shortly after.
From there, Embrace on the Beach was included in the Nazi-organized ‘degenerate art’ exhibition in October 1937, later passing into the hands of high-ranking Nazi official Hermann Goering. In 1939, after narrowly avoiding destruction, the painting was auctioned in Oslo among 45 other works by the artist. Munch consulted one of his patron’s Thomas Olsen, a Norwegian shipowner who had begun collecting the artist’s work in the 1920s, to buy back the paintings in order to repatriate them to Norway. Before the invasion of Norway in 1940, Olsen brought the works to his family’s residence in the Norwegian district of Vaagaa for safekeeping.
The works were then inherited by the collector’s sons, billionaire shipping magnates Fred Olsen and Peter Olsen (the latter was the 2012 seller of The Scream). The Olsens sold a group of eight paintings by the artist alongside Embrace on a Beach during Sotheby’s impressionist and modern art sale back in February 2006. In that sale, the Linde Frieze sold for £6.2 million ($10.8 million), tripling the estimate of £2 million ($3.5 million). The Olsen sale was also the last time a major self-portrait by the artist came up for auction, when another Munch’s canvas from 1904, Self-portrait (Against two-coloured background), sold for $6.2 million.
Munch has seen renewed attention amid the recent opening of an exhibition at the Royal Academy in London in November 2020, pairing his works alongside those of British contemporary artist Tracey Emin, who claims Munch as one of her biggest influences. A new venue for the Munchmuseet (Munch Museum) is also set to open this summer in Oslo.
The pandemic, according to Simon Shaw, Sotheby’s vice president of the fine arts division has brought a surging interest to the painter’s macabre images. “(It) pushes us back to the issues which were important to him, back to the very stuff of life, in all its messy and lyrical moments. It’s drawn people to a greater understanding and appreciation of his work,” Shaw told The Guardian. Exploring themes around illness and anxiety throughout his oeuvre, Munch depicted himself mid-pandemic, recovering from the Spanish Flu of 1918, in a work that now resides at the Munchmuseet in Norway.
The frieze’s original owner, German Jewish art historian Dr. Curt Glaser—ousted as a director of Berlin’s top art historical library and forced to sell a portion of his collection under duress—has also been the subject of renewed attention.
In 2008, Glaser’s heirs began legislation to reclaim items from his original collection, many of which ended up in museums. In March 2020, the Kunstmuseum Basel, which acquired 200 works from Glaser’s holdings in 1933, agreed to compensate Glaser’s heirs and to stage an extensive exhibition around the historian in 2022 in order to avoid repatriation.
The two works are scheduled to go on display at Sotheby’s in New York in late February and then travel to Taipei and Hong Kong in early March before their final exhibition in London.