Something to Scream About


It’s one of the most recognizable images in all of art – Norwegian artist Edvard Munch’s iconic vision The Scream. An agonized figure – little more than a garbed skull and hands – set against a background of blood–colored sky. And recently, it sold for a record–setting price. But could it have been inspired, at least in part, by his tax return?  

Munch grew up in Oslo, son of a dour priest. His personal style addressed psychological themes and incorporated elements of naturalism, impressionism, and symbolism. He studied in Paris and exhibited in Berlin before painting the first of four versions of The Scream in 1893.  

We remember Munch now mostly for his art, but his life included some frustrating run–ins with the tax man. Apparently, Munch wasn’t any happier keeping timely and accurate records than the rest of us. Here’s an excerpt from Sue Prideaux’s biography, Edvard Munch: Behind the Scream.  

“This tax problem has made a bookkeeper of me too. I’m really not supposed to paint, I guess. Instead, I’m supposed to sit here and scribble figures in a book. If the figures don’t balance I’ll be put in prison. I don’t care about money. All I want to do with the limited time I have left is to use it to paint a few pictures in peace and quiet. The country might benefit from giving me time to paint. But does anyone care?”  

Even without that tortured face in The Scream, most of us can still probably relate to his frustration!  

Last month, Sotheby’s auction house in New York sold a pastel–on–board version of The Scream for $119.9 million – a new record for art sold at auction. The seller was Norwegian billionaire Petter Olsen; the buyer remains unknown. If the seller had been American, there could have been quite a tax to pay. Capital gains from the sale of appreciated property held more than 12 months are ordinarily capped at 15%. But paintings like The Scream are classified as “collectibles” and subject to a top tax of 28%.  

Do you have precious artwork or antiques that you are looking to sell? Before you call the auction house, be sure to consult a tax professional so that you fully understand your tax obligations for appreciated property, or you may just have a scream moment yourself when the IRS comes calling.