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The History of Auctions

By: Chris Nickson - Updated: 9 Jul 2010 | comments*Discuss
The History Of Auctions

Auctions have been used as a method of selling for a long, long time - the first recorded auctions were in Ancient Greece, but it's perfectly possible that they existed before that and no one had written about them.

What's certain is that they've developed over time to become a vital part of business and trade, whether it's the auctioning off of the belongings of a dead soldier or sailor to raise money for his family to the great auction rooms of Sotheby's and Christie's to the booming empire of auctions online that rules the roost today.

The First Recorded Auctions

The Greek writer Herodotus was the first man to write about auctions around 500 B.C. At that time, though, it wasn't goods being auctioned off, but girls - in fact the only legal way to make a daughter into someone's wife was to auction her off through the established process.

Unlike the auctions we know, it was reportedly a descending auction, so the first high bid was the winner, as long as the reserve price was met. Understandably, bidding went high on pretty girls, while the plains ones had to have dowries from their fathers as an incentive to bid!

Auctions of goods were very common in the Roman Empire, when soldiers auction off war booty. Whereas auctions now are controlled by an auctioneer and gavel, in those rougher times they were conducted by a Magister Auctionarium who set up shop by a spear driven into the ground.

Auctions In Britain

Although they almost certainly existed long before, auctions didn't make it into the Oxford English Dictionary until 1595, during the reign of Elizabeth 1. Not long after that, auctions became part and parcel of the trade fabric of the settlers in America.

They would buy pelts from the Indians and once a year they'd transport them to the ports where the merchant ships were docked. Then they'd auction them off to the captains. This would provide them with cash to purchase more pelts the next year and build up the wealth of the colonies.

According to records, in London it was mostly artwork that was auctioned, although it's probably inevitable that other items were, too. The auctions apparently took place in coffee houses and taverns. It was through this that the two biggest, and most famous auction rooms got their start, with Sotheby's founded in 1744 and Christie's 22 years later.

War Auctions

During the Napoleonic Wars it was commonplace to auction off the possessions of dead soldiers and sailors to their comrades, with the money being passed on to the deceased's family.

In the American Civil War (which came about in part, through slavery, and slaves, of course, were auctioned on arrival in America), all too often troops would seize the goods of landowners and they'd then be auctioned off later by the commanding officer (who was usually a Colonel, which gave rise to the American mannerism of calling auctioneers Colonel).

Modern Auction History

Amazingly, produce and fish weren't auctioned off in wholesale amounts until the late 19th century, when the practice began in Europe. By then auctions of all manner of things were well established in Britain.

The biggest revolution came with the start of auctions online in 1995, when eBay began. It made auctions democratic, and easily available to everyone from home, with extensive auction lists of almost everything. In the years since it's gone global and often been imitated, with even larger auction lists now. It seems safe to say that as long as there are humans, in one form or another, auctions will continue.

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