Habitat: Obsessions is a ten-part series of visits to the surprising non-art collections of art-world professionals.
Los Angeles dealer Michael Kohn has had an interest in toy trains since he was a kid. His brother, ten years his senior, collected them. About 15 years ago, a friend happened to pull one out, and Kohn remembered that there was a similar one at his parents’ house. After tracking it down, he began researching on eBay, which he had just learned about. Studying the pre- and postwar model trains on the auction site, he realized that he could become a serious collector for only a few thousand dollars. “I loved the idea of these postwar 20th-century machines that had a craftsmanship and a quality to their object-ness that was pretty mesmerizing for me,” Kohn told me when I visited his house this summer.
Today, Kohn’s collection includes both pre- and postwar model trains (most serious collections are either/or) as well as a large swath of kitschy novelty items, including a green Thomas & Friends train, a Los Angeles County Lifeguard speed boat, and a Santa’s Speeder. These pieces are scattered and in boxes around a shed in his backyard where he runs the less valuable, non-collector items on a working track.
The bulk of his prized collection, which is stored in a steel-and-glass display in his dining room, is made up of Lionel Santa Fe model trains with clear shell engines, from the 1950s. Kohn estimates that there originally were probably about 75 to 100 released to the public, with about 20 surviving to this day; he owns about 10. One of his the rarest items in his holdings is an unopened train set—also made by Lionel, which was at one point the largest manufacturer of model trains—that was marketed to girls in the late ’50s. “This is, by all accounts, the only mint condition unopened box of this set,” he said of the train, which sits in a Plexiglas display case atop a pedestal near the main case. “I have it displayed, and most people think it’s like a Jeff Koons or something, but it’s not. It’s actually a box of trains.”
A version of this story originally appeared in the Fall 2016 issue of ARTnews on page 60 under the title “Michael Kohn: Model trains.”