Munch’s “The Scream” Stolen From Face in a Rock?

April 1, 2013

In May of 2012, one of Edvard Munch’s four original versions of “The Scream” became the most expensive painting ever sold at $120 million dollars.

Little did the purchaser (or the curators at the Museum of Modern Art in New York) realize that the true original could have been acquired for a good bit less. Namely, for free.

According to a press release out today from the University of Oslo in Norway (Munch’s home country), an anonymous German collector has made a donation of an otherwise ordinary white chert rock to the university’s Natural History Museum. What sets this rock apart are a few areas where the white chalk has broken off to reveal dark black splotches bearing a striking resemblance to the screaming face in Munch’s painting.

The "Primeval Scream" is white chert, with exposed black inclusions bearing a striking resemblance to Munch's later painting. (Photo courtesy Jørn Hurum)
The “Primeval Scream” is white chert, with exposed black inclusions bearing a striking resemblance to Munch’s later painting. (Photo courtesy Jørn Hurum)

Found anywhere else, such a rock would be of little note, but its origin in Germany ties it to a legendary entry in Munch’s journal describing the origins of “The Scream” during his time in that country, where he writes “…this rock, this burden that plagued me night and day…” For decades, this entry has sent scholars on a hushed-up search for the specific rock (called the “Primeval Scream” or  “der Urschrei”) that inspired one of the world’s most iconic images.

National Geographic Explorer Jørn Hurum is an Associate Professor at the museum, and was on hand to receive the rock along with the museum’s director, Arne Bjørlykke. “This gives us a unique opportunity to communicate art history and science to the general public together with our neighbor, the Munch Museum,” Bjørlykke said, referring to the institution spearheading this year’s 150th anniversary of Munch’s birth.

Jørn Hurum and Arne Bjørlykke welcome the "Primeval Scream" to the University of Oslo. (Photo courtesy Jørn Hurum)
Jørn Hurum and Arne Bjørlykke welcome the “Primeval Scream” to the University of Oslo. (Photo courtesy Jørn Hurum)


The question now is what value does the rock itself have? The question after that is how old is the rock? Subsequently, one might ask is it natural, or did some prehistoric Edvard Munch intentionally mark this face in the rock?

By now it’s time for another question, so how about asking what would a cave man have to feel so angsty about? The crushing soullessness of the modern industrial world was still a way off.

Maybe it was the saber-toothed cats.

And one final question: has anyone read this far and not yet realized this is an April Fool’s Day joke?


Learn More

Official Press Release

Munch 150

History of April Fool’s Day


Human Journey


Meet the Author
Andrew Howley is a longtime contributor to the National Geographic blog, with a particular focus on archaeology and paleoanthropology generally, and ancient rock art in particular. In 2018 he became Communications Director at Adventure Scientists, founded by Nat Geo Explorer Gregg Treinish. Over 11 years at the National Geographic Society, Andrew worked in various ways to share the stories of NG explorers and grantees online. He also produced the Home Page of for several years, and helped manage the Society's Facebook page during its breakout year of 2010. He studied Anthropology with a focus on Archaeology from the College of William & Mary in Virginia. He has covered expeditions with NG Explorers-in-Residence Mike Fay, Enric Sala, and Lee Berger. His personal interests include painting, running, and reading about history. You can follow him on Twitter @anderhowl and on Instagram @andrewjhowley.