Gethin Chamberlain in Oslo, for The Sunday Telegraph, 6 April 2008
First, the bad news: Edvard Munch’s most famous painting, The Scream, is damaged beyond repair.
Four years after it was stolen in an armed raid on an Oslo museum, and two years after Norwegian police found it, scratched and water-damaged, conservators have told The Sunday Telegraph there is nothing more they can do to restore what is undoubtedly one of the most recognisable paintings in the world.
Unlikely as it might seem, however, there is some good news for Munch fans: art experts believe the damage may have added to the value of a painting that was already estimated to be worth up to £50 million.
As final preparations are made to put the 1893 masterpiece back on show next month, The Scream’s keepers are nervously awaiting the public’s verdict. Despite the skill and dedication of a restoration team who have worked tirelessly to repair most of the damage, the bottom-left corner of the painting has been washed out and left scarred by a dirty brown water mark.
Under normal circumstances, the team would have used suction techniques to wash away the mark, drawing the moisture out through the back of the canvas. But Munch painted The Scream on cardboard and glued it to a board: the only possible approach is from the front, and the risk of creating more damage is considered too great.
Ingebjørg Ydstie, the director of Oslo’s Munch Museum, from which the painting was stolen in 2004, said they had decided to restrict conservation work to an absolute minimum and do nothing that could not be reversed.
“In my view it does not take anything away from the strong expression, the sky like flames… we don’t think it is of any less artistic value,” she said. “We are prepared for a debate around the damage, but in our view it is not a change in the value of the painting.
“We are used now to the water mark and have decided not to do anything with it.
The major expression of the painting is more or less the same and it is still a strong image. Maybe all these spectacular events and crime stories have lent an additional popular knowledge and increased the general interest.”
Her optimism was shared by the art expert Charles Dupplin, of the London-based insurance company, Hiscox.
“Notoriety can indeed increase the value of a painting because I think people do like having things that are slightly notorious,” he said. “In this instance, although there is significant damage, it has certainly added to the general interest and possibly the value of this particular painting.”
It will not be the first time that a painting’s worth has increased as a result of apparent misfortune. A quarter of a century after a woman put a bullet through
a stack of Andy Warhol paintings in his New York studio, one of the damaged works – a picture of Marilyn Monroe which was by then known as Shot Red Marilyn – fetched more than $4 million at auction in 1989, a then-record price for the artist.
Experts believe that most of the damage to The Scream was caused during the robbery itself, when two armed men grabbed it and another Munch painting, the £5 million Madonna, from the walls of the museum and ran to a waiting getaway car, breaking the frames as they made their escape. Three men were later jailed in connection with the robbery, though the two gunmen were never caught.
The museum was closed for a year while security was completely overhauled and when the paintings were recovered in 2006, work to restore them began almost immediately.
Locked inside a bright, white-walled room which was protected by fingerprint-activated locks on heavy steel doors, in carefully controlled levels of humidity and temperature, the team pored over the painting using high-powered microscopes, examining every inch for signs of damage before starting the painstaking job of tackling the tears and scratches disfiguring the masterpieces.
Working with tiny surgical tools under strong magnifying glasses, they used an adhesive made from a mix of wheat and sturgeon to reattach torn threads on the Madonna canvas. Paste made from the fish can generate an exceptionally sticky glue.
Where the paint on The Scream was scratched and flaking, a paste of rice starch was carefully applied to hold it together. But the biggest problem remained the water mark and faded bottom-left corner of the painting. Tests carried out in several laboratories, including one in Britain, established that water was indeed the cause of the damage, and that it had left a faded matt layer – in strong contrast to the gloss on the rest of the painting.
Exactly how the water damage occurred is unknown. Gry Landro, 36, the museum’s paper conservator, said they had decided to live with it. “I don’t think it is too bad, I think it is part of the painting now, but it will be interesting to see how the public reacts,” she said.
“I think there will be a lot of, ‘Wow, it’s really intrusive, why couldn’t you remove it?’ It is part of our job to try to explain why it is still there. I think it is much wiser to leave it when you are not sure how to do it in a safe way.”
Not that Munch would have minded that much. He once drove a nail through the top of the painting in order to hang it on a wall.