It evinces wonder and horror in equal measure - a masterwork of 19th-century art and a harbinger of existential angst in the most archly Nietzschean vein. Now, one of four versions of Edvard Munch's most famous, and notorious, canvas, The Scream (1893), is to go under the hammer at Sotheby's of New York. The version looking for a buyer is the only one of the quartet in private hands. Simon Shaw, head of the department of impressionist & modern art at Sotheby's, described his admiration for the piece and his pleasure at the imminent auction: "Munch's The Scream is the defining image of modernity, and it is an immense privilege for Sotheby's to be entrusted with one of the most important works of art in private hands."
The 150th anniversary of Munch's birth, in 2013, has inevitably renewed interest in this genius of Norwegian symbolism, and Shaw detects in The Scream a continuing relevance: "Instantly recognisable, this is one of very few images which transcends art history and reaches a global consciousness. The Scream arguably embodies even greater power today than when it was conceived." Needless to say, the painting has made an indelible impact on its owner, Norwegian businessman Petter Olsen, whose father, Thomas, was a patron and friend of the artist: "I have lived with this work all my life," says Olsen, "and its power and energy have only increased with time." Olsen is keen to share the work with a deserving would-be audience: "Now . . . I feel the moment has come to offer the rest of the world a chance to own and appreciate this remarkable work, which is the only version of The Scream not in the collection of a Norwegian museum."
This will be the first time the 1895 version, the most potent of the four, will be seen publicly in both New York and London. Though circumspect about the exact value of The Scream, Shaw said it may attract an $80m (£50m) price tag. Whatever the final price, the sale of this most celebrated work of modern gothica will be one of the most significant events in the art world this year.