One of four originals by Norwegian artist goes on show in capital for first time before estimated £50m sale in New York
Sotheby's employees pose for a photograph with one of four of Edvard Munch's originals of The Scream. Photograph: Stefan Wermuth/Reuters
A version of one of the most instantly recognisable works of art in the world goes on public display in London on Friday for the first time ahead of its sale next month with an estimate of £50m ($80m) – a figure that could easily prove to be conservative.
Four versions of Edvard Munch's The Scream exist and the only one remaining in private hands will be sold at Sotheby's in New York on 2 May.
Amid tight security, it was unveiled to journalists in London on Thursday. Members of the public can see it and other sale highlights on Friday,Saturday and Sunday.
Philip Hook, senior specialist at the auction house, said: "In terms of the fame and the familiarity of the image, I think this is the most important picture that Sotheby's have ever sold. Short of selling the Mona Lisa, I do not think there is another image that transcends its original function as a work of art in a way that The Scream does.
"It is the ultimate image of angst and anxiety. It's an image of modern man's alienation – the face that launched a thousand therapists. In a sense it is the whole beginning of modern man's fascination with his own emotions."
An estimate of $80m has been put on the work, the highest ever by Sotheby's. But it would come as little surprise if it ends up rivalling or beating the auction-house record held by Picasso's Nude, Green Leaves and Bust, which sold for $106m at Christie's in New York in May 2010.
"The estimate is very difficult," said Hook. "We shall see. It is a bit of a guess, but there is going to be tremendous interest in it."
It is being sold by Petter Olsen of the Olsen shipping family, whose father Thomas was a friend, patron and neighbour of Munch's at Hvitsten in Norway.
Olsen said the proceeds would go toward the establishment of a new museum, arts centre and hotel dedicated to the artist timed to open in 2013, the 150th anniversary of Munch's birth.
"We are restoring his house and guests can stay in his home," Olsen said. He added: "I am concerned as an environmentalist about man's relationship with nature, and I feel The Scream makes an important statement about this."
Other works in the sale include a knockout Francis Bacon, Figure Writing Reflected in Mirror, which has been in the same hands since it was bought in 1977 after a small but legendary show at the Galerie Claude Bernard in Paris; a 1941 Picasso portrait of his lover and muse Dora Maar, Femme Assise dans un Fauteuil; an Andy Warhol Double Elvis; and Roy Lichtenstein's Sleeping Girl.