“Eminently Practical” Bourbon-Filled Steel Train Sells for $33.8 Million at Auction

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May 14 2014 2:37 PM

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.")

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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.

Alison Griswold is a Slate staff writer covering business and economics.