From Ancient Greece to WWII, there is a long, colorful auction and bidding history that follows technological developments and cultural trends around the world. Today, the most popular and accessible way to bid on items ranging from collectibles to used industrial equipment and everything in between is in an online auction. But long before the internet, auctions had a rich past full of traditions and evolution that we will cover in part one of the history of the auctioning world. This look at the history of traditional auctions will help us to better understand the significance of modern day auctions covered in part 2.
The ancient origins of auctions
It may be surprising to know that auctions can be traced back to 500 B.C. in Greece when the historian, Herodotus, first made reference to the auction process. In fact, the word ‘auction’ is derived from the Latin word ‘augeo’, which means ‘I increase’. It may be more surprising to know that the first items up for bids at these ancient Greek auctions were women. Brides were auctioned off to suitable families for marriage.
Around this same period in history, the Roman Empire began using auctions to liquidate the assets of debtors and to allow soldiers to sell off their war plunder and slaves. In the year 193 A.D. the whole of the Roman Empire was put up for auction after the Emperor Pertinax was killed and empire was sacked.
There is also evidence of ancient auctions taking place in China to sell off the property of deceased Buddhist monks and fund the upkeep of temples. This was not a very common or documented practice, however.
The rise of modern auctions in Europe
Auction history goes relatively quiet until 17th century Europe, where a revival in trading goods through auctions rose back to popularity. Coffeehouses and taverns held auctions of artwork throughout the 17th century. These early auctions were referred to as “candle auctions” as a candle would be lit at the beginning of the auction and when the candle had finished burning, the auction was over.
The world’s first auction house, Stockholms Auktionsverk or Stockholm Auction House, was established in Sweden in 1674. The Stockholm Auction House was soon followed by two London auction houses – Sotheby’s in 1774 and Christie’s in 1776. These are currently the second and first largest auction houses in the world today, respectively. Christie’s became a major hub of the international art trade by selling artwork acquired during the French Revolution.
Auctions arriving in North America
Auction history in North America can also be traced to the 17th century during the time of the Pilgrims. Crops, building materials, imports, livestock, animal furs, and tobacco were common items found at early American auctions. When the slave trade began growing America, it also utilized the auction system. The first slave trade was held in New Amsterdam (now known as New York) in 1655. Public auctions were the most common way of buying and selling slaves up until slavery was abolished in 1865.
Flower auctions were a craze of the 18th and 19th centuries and utilized a unique way of auctioning that starts with a high price and works its way down – the method being called a ‘Dutch Auction’. This method forced quick decisions for buyers and was perfect for selling flowers, in particular, Dutch tulips, as they needed to be quickly sold and shipped before they wilted. The FloraHolland Aalsmeer Flower Auction remains the largest flower auction house today.
American auctions and auction schools on the rise
During the Civil War, auctions of a wide range of goods began to flourish. Historically, an auctioneer is referred to as a ‘Colonel’ due to the common practice of Civil War colonels auctioning off goods seized from the enemy and excess materials in public sales. Only colonels were granted the authority to conduct these auctions and the name stuck. Many early auctions offered sellers a free lunch to entice more items available for bidding.
The popularity of auctions in America grew so dramatically that auction schools began to open in the early 1900s to teach the art of hosting an auction. The very first auction school was The Jones’ National School of Auctioneering and Oratory. It was opened by auctioneer Carey M. Jones in Davenport, Iowa and promoted “competent instructors teaching general merchandise, real estate and fine stock auctioneering.”
Auction history through the great depression and WWII
The growth of auctions in America remained steady until the Great Depression hit in 1929 when, as with most industries during this period, auctions became scarcer. They didn’t disappear completely, though. The industry stayed alive with a handful of auctioneers travelling the country to sell off the estates of farmers and homeowners facing bank foreclosures, an unfortunate reality of the time.
The popularity of auctions bounced back along with the entirety of the U.S. economy in the 1950s after World War II. A sudden spurt in the selling of goods and real estate led to the public wanting to acquire goods faster than the private market would allow. Hence, the modern day auction industry was created.
Instead of the traditional auctioneering ‘colonels’, the auctioneers of the 1950s took on the persona of professional businessmen with suits and ties. Auction houses began to expand their audiences beyond the general public to include banks, attorneys, accountants, government agencies, and the court system. The auction business became a respected industry that grew into a highly profitable method of commerce across many vectors from antiques and flowers to industrial equipment and heavy machinery and everything in between.
The evolution of auctions has come a long way since those first bidding wars over women in ancient Greece. That evolution didn’t end in the 1950s, either! With the arrival of technology and the internet, traditional auctions have given rise to what we now call ‘modern auctions’ or online auctions. To read more about auctions of the 21st century, check out part 2 of the History of the Auctioning World.