Is Edvard Munch’s The Scream A Case For Nazi Restitution

Edvard Munch

A version of Edvard Munch’s The Scream, which broke all auction records for a work of art when it was sold for $119 million dollars last spring, at Sotheby’s, is being disputed by the heirs of a Jewish family, who claim its relatives were forced to sell the work by the Nazis. The Museum of Modern Art in NY plan to display the painting from 24 October.

Edvard Munch’s masterpiece goes on view next week but the relatives are up in arms and claim it is an insensitive gesture to show the work. The family believe it was part of a collection of works that were ‘force sold,’ as the family escaped Nazi terror. It was later bought by Norway’s prominent Olsen family, who hid the pastel in a barn for five years, after the Germans invaded Norway in 1940. The Nazis considered it “degenerate” art and would have sold or destroyed the picture had it been discovered. The work remained in their private collection for the last 70 years and was never exhibited publicly.  It is the only version of The Scream (There are 4 in total) that is not in a Norwegian museum.

The decedents of the German-Jewish banker Hugo Simon, who owned the work in the 1920s and ’30s, claimed prior to the Sotheby’s auction that its sale was irresponsible as title was subject to Nazi Restitution claims by the family. They failed to get an injunction in time to stop the record breaking sale of the work and they now say it’s wrong for The Museum of Modern Art to display it without at least explaining its true background. 

Simon’s great-grandson, told the NY Post on Friday that his forbear had to sell the treasure when he was declared an enemy of the state and driven from Germany. When the Nazis came to power in 1933, “Jews were giving up what they couldn’t hide,” he said.

When the family contested the Sotheby’s sale, they were offered $250,000 by the seller, Petter Olsen, as a donation to a charity of his choice. The donation, however, would be in the seller’s name.“The conditions of the offer were insulting,” stated a family member and it was felt it would have been appropriate for the donation to be made in Mr Simon’s name not Olsens.

The Scream was recently purchased by the New York billionaire Leon Black who set the record for the highest price ever paid for a work of art at auction. Mr Black is a trustee of MoMA and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  Both institutions have signed up to an international agreement saying it would seek a “just and fair solution” for disputed art. Neither have a very good record for sticking to this agreement and have strenuously contested any claims in the past.

It is not known whether Hugo Simon was compensated for the sale of The Scream back in the 1930’s. This is one of the grey areas involved with the case that could in the future help contest the ownership of the masterpiece.

The Munch exhibit is set to open at MoMA on 24 October.


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