Christie’s Sets New Record With Latest Art Auction

Jim Beam D J.B. Turner Train by Jeff Koons is displayed during a photo call at Christie's in central London.
Jim Beam - J.B. Turner Train by Jeff Koons is displayed during a photo call at Christie’s in central London.

Photo by Andrew Cowie/AFP/Getty Images

On Tuesday night, fine arts auction house Christie’s posted its highest ever total for a single auction (not accounting for inflation). Over the course of a three-hour auction of postwar and contemporary art, Christie’s sold nearly $745 million worth of paintings and sculptures. Highlights on the lineup included Andy Warhol’s White Marilyn (sold for $41 million), Francis Bacon’s Three Studies for a Portrait of John Edwards ($80.8 million), and Barnett Newman’s Black Fire I ($84.2 million).

But best of all may have been Jim Beam - J.B. Turner Train: a nine-and-a-half foot bourbon-filled steel train that went for $33.8 million. The sculpture was created in 1986 as part of a Jeff Koons exhibition called “Luxury and Degradation.” The notion, as Koons has explained it, was to “suggest how the idea of luxury, through abstraction, is used to induce a psychological state of degradation.” (However, New Yorker writer Calvin Tomkins argued in a 2007 profile of Koons that “it is possible to argue that no real connection exists between Koons’ work and what he says about it.”)

Christie’s lot notes on Koons’ boozy train describe steel as the “perfect material for Koons.” Why? “It polishes to a mirror sheen that hints at luxury yet is eminently practical… It keeps the whiskey safe, preserved, at a remove from possible temptation.” Koons also used stainless steel to craft his famous Balloon Dog (Orange) sculpture, which sold for $58.4 million at an auction this past November.

But back to what really matters: $33.8 million for an ornamental model train filled with whiskey that you can’t see, much less drink?!? If the idea is “to induce a psychological state of degradation,” then it sounds eminently practical to me.