This Train Bound for Glory?
Christie’s has announced two remarkable sculptures for its November 17th sale. Two sculptures coming from one European collection highlight the often difficult process of estimating work at auction. The lots are Jeff Koons’s famous Jim Beam — J.B. Turner Train estimated at $15 million and Charles Ray’s Revolution Counter-Revolution which carries a $3 million estimate.
For the Ray, the low estimate with fees would be a record price for the artist. That’s because few of Ray’s sculptures are sold publicly despite his huge reputation and all-star collector base. Ray’s work is owned by Emily and Mitchell Rales’s Glenstone, Francois Pinault, Steven and Lisa Tananbaum, Glenn Fuhrman, Tom Hill, and others. Whether Ray’s dealer, Matthew Marks, can take credit for the quiet public market or the artist’s cerebral work and lack of an identifiable style is the reason for it, doesn’t really matter. A prominent retrospective at New York’s Metropolitan Museum might have been enough to educate the market.
Many of those same collectors also own works by Jeff Koons. The Jim Beam — J.B. Turner Train is one the artists more recognizable objects. The train is seven different elements. But Koons also created editions of eight different individual Jim Beam train cars. There's also a Model A Ford in the series. Nevertheless, the train was the centerpiece of the 1986 Luxury & Degradation series that helped make Koons's name as an artist.
The complete train is an edition of three works and an artist’s proof. The first example of the train to come to auction appeared in 2004 when the edition numbered 1 sold for just under $5.5 million. For context, that price was just slightly below the record $5.6 million paid for Michael Jackson and Bubbles three years earlier.
Ten years later, on the eve of the Whitney’s Koons retrospective that would in many ways mark the high point of the artist’s market, the artist’s proof of the Jim Beam — J.B. Turner Train was sold for $33.7 million.
Christie’s is now bringing the third train of the four to market with an estimate that recognizes many of the new realities of Koons’s market. Some of the tensions around the artist’s relationship with his collectors—many were frustrated at delays in the delivery of sculptures they had already paid for—have subsided now.
The $91 million sale of the Rabbit in 2019 was a reminder that Koons’s historical work is undiminished in many collectors' eyes. Last year, during the Macklowe sale, that was demonstrated when one of the artist's Aqualungs came to market. The work had followed a similar value path as the train. In 2002, an Aqualung sold for $1.76 million. In the same May season as the train, another example made $11.5 million or six times the previous price. Recognizing the friction in Koons's market, Sotheby's had estimated the work at $8 million. It sold for $15.2 million.
The train increased in value six times between 2004 and 2014. If it now sells on the same scale as the Aqualung, it would make $44 million.