Mystery buyer of record-breaking 'Scream' unknown, for now

NEW YORK Fri May 4, 2012 12:30pm EDT

Employees hold ''The Scream'' painted by Edvard Munch at a Sotheby's auction in New York May 2, 2012. REUTERS/Andrew Burton

Employees hold ''The Scream'' painted by Edvard Munch at a Sotheby's auction in New York May 2, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Andrew Burton

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NEW YORK (Reuters) - Two days after the $120 million sale of Edvard Munch's "The Scream" set a new record for the most expensive work ever sold at auction the identify of its anonymous buyer remains unknown, but perhaps not for long.

Speculation about who purchased the pricey painting has ranged from Russian tycoons, Asian collectors and American billionaires to museums and internet entrepreneurs.

But the lips of those in the know at Sotheby's, where the painting was sold on Wednesday, are sealed.

For now at least, although some dealers were heard saying the buyer would come forward before long.

"There's a distinction between disclosing identity at the point of purchase, and disclosing identity later on -- either by displaying it in the home for friends, or through lending to a public institution," said Marc Porter, president and chairman of Christie's Americas.

"So it could be a case of, watch this space. We very well may learn the buyer in the next six months," he added.

Seven or eight bidders joined the frenzy on Wednesday evening in the packed salesroom in New York when bidding started at $40 million, then slowed markedly past $50 million.

It came down to two bidders competing via telephones handled by Sotheby's executives. Charles Moffett, Sotheby's vice chairman for Impressionist, Modern and Contemporary art, prevailed at $107 million, or $119.9 million including commission.

The determined buyer has very deep pockets. Moffett's hand went up almost immediately each time his competitor raised the ante -- a sign that he was authorized keep going even further.

David Norman, Sotheby's co-chair of Impressionist and Modern art, said last week that for collecting at this level "about 10 candidates would be in a position to buy it," or possibly as many as 15.

Speculation about the identity of the buyer has focused on the usual roster of top collectors including Russian-born mogul Leonard Blavatnik, Russian billionaire tycoon Roman Abramovich or Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen.

Ronald Lauder, who paid $135 million for Gustav's Klimt's "Adele Bloch-Bauer I" a few years ago, and Qatar's royal family, who reportedly spent $250 million on Cezanne's "The Card Player" last year in a complicated private transaction, have both been mentioned and just as often dismissed.

Even museums, not normally in a position for such a purchase, are being floated as possible buyers, notably the Museum of Modern Art, which Moffett reportedly mentioned as a potential consortium buyer.

Although the painting may eventually be exhibited in a museum, even that might not solve the mystery.

Picasso's "Green leaves, nude and bust," which for two years was the world's top-priced work at auction after Christie's sold it for $106.5 million, is currently on display at London's Tate Modern -- where its owner is still not identified.

(Reporting by Chris Michaud; editing by Patricia Reaney)

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