Excitement struck deep at Christie’s New York last week as the hammer dropped on a historic railroad spike that sold for more than $2 million. “The Exceptional Sale” featured 29 lots of “the best of the best,” according to the auction overview, and though many of the lots were Louis XIV-era decorative furniture and ephemera, the real belle of the ball was the “Arizona Spike” — a steel spike clad in gold and silver that commemorated the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad in 1869.
This railroad spike is a symbol of the massive private and public works project that connected the United States coasts with a functioning means of public transportation, and its cache as a singular historical object shone through in the bidding, which shattered the pre-sale estimate of $300,000–500,000.
The object was one of four ceremonial spikes used to mark the “meeting of the rails” at Promontory Point, Utah, in May 1869. Commissioned and presented by Arizona Territorial Governor Anson P.K. Safford, it took its cue from the first spike commissioned for the event, by David Hewes, the brother-in-law of Jane Stanford, the wife of Central Pacific Railroad Director Leland Stanford. Hewes had benefited greatly from the railroad development, capitalizing on steam shovels to fill in wetlands surrounding San Francisco, and was seeking a celebratory gesture to combat what he saw as a lack of “proper sentiment being expressed by the people of the Pacific Coast, and especially by the great mining industries of the territories through which this railroad passed.” First envisioned as a notion of “silver rails” at the connecting railway lines, the idea morphed into a golden spike.
“Hewes opted to commission instead a golden spike as his offering to commemorate the meeting of the two railroads,” Christie’s catalogue essay explains. The event, which involved four commemorative spikes in total, was one of the first events in history to be live-broadcast to an entire nation.
To the unknowing spectator, the approximately five-inch-long piece may look like a slightly overblown souvenir from the state train museum, but Peter Klarnet, Christie’s senior specialist of Americana, said he and his team “knew it would be the subject of intense competition among collectors.”
“In the end, the value soared past our expectations,” Klarnet added. “I think the spike captured the imagination of collectors, in part, because it is a potent symbol of national unity. That sense of unity means as much today as it did when the transcontinental railroad was finished less than four years after the Civil War.”
This purported sense of unity is a bit of whitewashing on an undertaking that, in addition to supporting the Manifest Destiny-fueled colonization of North America, also cost many thousands of (mostly Chinese) immigrant workers their lives, but the power of the spike as a symbol of American progress clearly resonated with contemporary bidders. Maybe we’re all just nostalgic for a time when the government supported functional infrastructure-building?
There were fewer bidders looking for a more satirical take on Westward expansion, as the original 35 mm reels of Andy Warhol’s 1968 film, Lonesome Cowboys, fetched merely their expected price of $25,200. With its homosexual overtones, a 1969 film screening in Atlanta triggered a raid known as the “Stonewall of the South,” which included the harassment of a movie-going audience of roughly 70 patrons, as well as the arrest of the theater’s owners.
Overall, specialty items seemed to be the auction trend of the week, with “The One” at Sotheby’s — featuring an iconic gown worn by Princess Diana — taking place on the same day and also placing a premium on one-of-a-kind objects through history.