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Edvard Munch's Scream and the Competitive Thrill of Auction Bidding

By Michael Murray | Think Pieces | May 4, 2012 |

By Michael Murray | Think Pieces | May 4, 2012 |

What does Edvard Munch’s iconic painting The Scream mean to me?

Jennifer Tremblay, I guess.

It was the occasion of her 30th birthday and for some reason I had decided that I liked her. She seemed complex, edgy. She spoke in flowing, unbroken paragraphs, was taking a “break” from her Master’s in English Literature and used to be a promising ballet dancer before she injured herself. You know, fucked-up, but what did I know? I thought she was sophisticated and I curious about many things.

Had she really partied with Arcade Fire?
What song made her think of me?
What would she look like wearing nothing but my shirt in the morning?

In order to separate myself from her pack of confused suitors, I gave her a life-sized blow up doll of The Scream for her birthday. I thought this funny. You know, “I’m 30 now, Aaah!” Of course, it wasn’t taken this way, but as “an interesting commentary on how art has been made a commodity.” Her family, I should tell you, all referred to themselves as artists, frequently starting sentences, even those as pedestrian as to be about hockey, by saying, “As an artist…”

At any rate, I tried to explain that it was just a joke, but it was no use and I was dragged into a self-conscious pit of book learning that was more symbol that substance. I mean, if the work, which the artist created to sell, took on a life beyond his intention, was that not valid? I argued this and was seen as a philistine. It was as if something truly horrible and irreversible had been revealed, and from that there was to be no recovery—my name was Goldman Sachs and I did not understand art and therefore would never see Jennifer Tremblay naked.

And so it goes.

This little piece of my life reappeared in my brain on Wednesday when I heard that Munch’s masterpiece just sold for $120 million at a Sotheby’s auction.

A record!
Well done, Edvard Munch!
You knocked it out of the goddamn park!

Bond_Girl_1983_OCTO_686439p.jpegAuctions are absolutely crazy. I’ve only been to one and I guess it’s fair to say that it didn’t go well. Knowing that I have an abiding interest in old, broken things, some friends took my wife and I to Durham County, just outside of Toronto, to show us the ropes. For some reason I imagined this auction happening in a barn, and that this barn would be full of hillbillies who were looking to buy cheap bottle caps or something, and I, like a James Bond figure, would sweep in and dazzle the room with my steely resolve and penetrating eye for value.

Well, nothing could have been further from the truth. The auction took place in a nice community hall and it was full of shark-like antique dealers from Toronto, intense, basement dwelling collectors of one sort or another, curiosity seekers and a some deluded morons such as myself.

As I was a little bit nervous upon arrival, not really understating the pace or culture of the event, I kept quiet and watched what my friends did. Candace, who had been to many of these things, jumped right in, enthusiastically bidding on vases and bowls. She never hesitated or showed any weakness, but just drove at her objective like some tank made out of girl. I was crazy impressed watching her— it was like she was a Kennedy— and then she made the winning bid on what I think was a vase. As soon as the auctioneer yelled, “Sold!” and pointed at her, she hung her head in regret and whisper-shouted, “Fuck!”

Our other friend, Stefan, a business guy who brokers industrial machinery and salvaged goods, and regularly attends auctions for work, was standing beside me looking wise and shaking his head. “People were such fools,” his headshake seemed to say. And then he began to bid on a box. It was a small, wooden box. Completely unremarkable in appearance, in fact, it looked a little bit like something I might have made in grade seven Shop Class. I thought it must have been constructed out of some magic wood, or perhaps crafted by unicorns in the 3rd century, I mean, why else would somebody as savvy as Stefan be bidding on it? He won it with a bid of $190. When he received it he began to look inside of it as if hoping to find a prize, but no, it was just a box.

“What are you going to do with that?” I asked.

“I might put some handkerchiefs in it.”

“So it will be like a $200 Kleenex box, only to get a Kleenex you’ll have to unlock the box, right?”

“The lock appears to be broken.”

“Oh, well that will make it easier to get your tissues, won’t it? Good buy!”

The auctioneer was talking so fast, his words spinning, and the environment of senseless competition was engendering a kind of panic in all of us. We were jumpy, thinking with the sludgy aggression of drunks. The people who were bidding against us had to be destroyed. They were our enemies. They were disgusting.

That woman bidding on the vintage Pac Mac arcade game?

A whore face.

The balding man bidding on that Art Deco lamp?

A sexual predator and torturer of dogs.

The middle-aged woman bidding on an AIDS quilt?

Stupid and boring.

I felt like I was on some sort of game show— maybe “The Price is Right” — and I just wanted to play. I had a primal need to defeat my competition, a need that was more urgent and important than winning itself. I wanted to be better than everybody else. I was becoming evil.

The first and only thing that I bid on was a bayonet.

Bayonet.jpegNever, not once in my entire life, had I ever wanted a bayonet. I don’t think I had ever even thought about a bayonet. I didn’t have a clue what I would do with a bayonet, but when the auctioneer held it up and all the military enthusiasts who were present started to make their creepy bids, I knew I had to defeat them.

I raised my hand and waved my paddle about.

“Don’t you dare,” my wife, hissed at me.

“Two hundred dollars!” I shouted out.

A man with greasy hair curling out from beneath his beret looked back at me. He began to wave his paddle in the air in defiance.

“Two fifty!” I shouted in response.

Rachelle gave me her death eyes, “I don’t want anything that might have killed another human being in our home! Do you understand!?”

I wasn’t listening to her. I was in the zone.

“Two seventy-five!” I bid against myself, still staring at the man in the beret.

It was at this point that Rachelle, who is rather tall and athletic, punched me in the neck. It was the side of the neck, but I think she might have hit a lymph node because it absolutely killed. She then twisted my arm behind my back and began to march me toward the exit. “I’m sorry about this,” she shouted at the auctioneer, “he has schizophrenia and he’s destitute. My apologies.”

Out in the car we found Stefan, who was just sitting there with his box. He looked like he was going to cry. The three of us sat there quietly, waiting for Candace and her four vases to join us so that we could return home like the champions we were.

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