The History of Auctions



The auctioneering profession is one of the oldest in the world.

As history written in script only evolved with the Sumerian culture some 3 – 4 000 years BC, historical data prior to that period is unavailable. However, we do know from the writings of the Greek historian Herodotus that the first auctions were documented about 500BC when he wrote of his visit to the fabled city of Babylon and witnessed an auction, although it was not known by that or any other particular name at that time.

The next major rise in the popularity of auctions occurred in Roman times when a duly licensed Magister auctionarium conducted auctions of the spoils of war. This was done by
driving a spear, complete with red flag (the hasta publica) into the ground to signal the start of the auction. This is traditionally where the red auction flag used today comes from.

The Romans also auctioned goods of commercial value, these being held in a sales auditorium known as the Atrium Auctionarium. The vendor was known as the Dominus, the man who organised the sale and most probably was involved in its financing was the argentarius. The praeco advertised and promoted the sale and the emptor, as the highest bidder, was the purchaser.

Many famous Romans were users of the auction system in the same way that today’s vendors operate and for the same reason – access to funds. The Emporer Celigula auctioned off the family furniture and ornaments to help him meet his debts and cover a State deficit. Emporer Marcus Aurelius had an auction of Royal heirlooms and treasures that continued for two months!! Later accounts of writings of such eminent historians as Cicero, Pliny the Elder and Suetonius refer to auctions and there practices were very similar to those of today.

In Asia, auctions were conducted as early as the 7th century AD when the personal belongings of deceased Buddhist monks were auctioned. In the 13th century, King. Henry VII brought in a law that no person could conduct a sale of goods or property without first obtaining a licence from the proper authorities. All unlicensed persons were strictly forbidden from selling goods or merchandise by “public outcry”. These sales and this method of selling were mentioned by Christopher Columbus in one of the ships logs when goods were purchased in Britain at public outcry. The earliest reference to the term “auction” is to be found in the Oxford Dictionary printed in 1595.

The earliest recorded auction of paintings was conducted in. London on the 14th and 15th May 1764 at Somerset House. The word “auction” appears in Edward Phillips New World of English Words in 1678 and a sale of the 1680 was described as a “public auction”.

Since that date, auctions have spread around the world and have become the accepted means of changing both title and ownership of property or goods in the fastest time.