Edvard Munch's iconic painting "The Scream" fetched nearly $120 million from an unknown buyer Wednesday at Sotheby's in New York, setting a new world record for a work of art sold at auction.
Experts had expected the piece to break new ground at the famed New York auction house; its presale estimate of at least $80 million was the highest ever listed at Sotheby's.
It sold for $119,922,500, which includes the premium paid to Sotheby's.
Previously, the most expensive painting ever sold there was Pablo Picasso's "Nude, Green Leaves, and Bust," which brought in $106.5 million two years ago. The previous record for a Munch work of art was just over $38 million.
The version of "The Scream" on the block Wednesday was one of four painted between 1893 and 1910, and is one of the best-known images in modern art.
It's also the only version a private collector can get their hands on at public auction. The other three are housed in the National Gallery of Oslo and the Munch museum in the Norwegian capital.
The image has become part of pop culture, "used by everyone from Warhol to Hollywood to cartoons to teacups and T-shirts," said Michael Frahm of the London-based art advisory service firm Frahm Ltd. "Together with the Mona Lisa, it's the most famous and recognized image in art history."
A buzz swept through the room when the artwork was presented for auction as two guards stood watch on either side. Bidding started at $40 million with seven buyers jumping into the competition early.
The battle eventually boiled down to two phone bidders as the historic hammer price was finally achieved after more than 12 minutes. The record price includes the buyer's premium, an additional amount the buyer pays the auction house.
"If you look at the billionaires, there are only so many private islands they can buy, private jets, private yachts. There's only one Scream," said Sue Prideaux, who wrote a book about Munch and was in the room during the auction.
Sotheby's said the pastel-on-board version of "The Scream" is the most colorful and vibrant of the four and the only version whose frame was hand-painted by the artist to include his poem, detailing the work's inspiration.
In the poem, Munch described himself "shivering with anxiety" and said he felt "the great scream in nature."
Norwegian businessman Petter Olsen, whose father was a friend and patron of the artist, said he sold the piece through Sotheby's because he felt "the moment has come to offer the rest of the world the chance to own and appreciate this remarkable work."
"I have lived with this work all my life, and its power and energy have only increased with time," Olsen said.
Proceeds from the sale will go toward the establishment of a new museum, art center and hotel in Hvitsten, Norway, where Olsen's father and Munch were neighbors.
The director of the National Museum in Oslo, Audun Eckhoff, says Norwegian authorities approved the Munch sale since the other versions of the composition are in Norwegian museums. One version is owned by the National Museum and two others by the Munch Museum, also in Oslo.
Frahm had predicted the sale would break a record. He said it will show that great quality artworks can still come up for sale; that the top end of the market is driving further away from the rest of the market and that it's a global market now where Asia and the Middle East are playing a more significant role than Europe and America.