Live Auctions: You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby

There’s nothing quite like a live auction. The atmosphere, the auctioneer’s chant and the thrill of the chase are, according to the professionals at Bang the Gavel, what make live auctions so much fun. You may be wondering if the live auction is a relatively new way to sell items. It may surprise you to learn that records of live auctions go as far back as 500 B.C. and while some things remain the same, thankfully, much has changed.

Of Slaves and Brides

The first recorded live auctions were in Babylon in 500 B.C. Auctions of marriageable women were held annually. In fact, it was illegal to sell a daughter outside of the confines of an authorized auction.

The Roman Empire began the tradition of selling goods at auction. After a military victory, soldiers drove spears in the ground to signify spoils of war that would later be auctioned. Captured people were also auctioned as slaves, with the proceeds used to finance the war.

The Romans liquidated debtor assets with auctions. Citizens used auctions to pay off debts as well. Perhaps the most momentous auction in a historical context was when the Praetorian Guard placed the entire Roman Empire on the auction block. Didius  Julianus, the winning bidder and new emperor, did not live long enough to enjoy his prize. Septimius Severus conquered Rome a mere nine weeks later and Julianus was beheaded.

A New Beginning

Auctions fell out of favor after the Roman Empire until 17th and 18th century England. Candle auctions began to spring up to sell lease holdings and goods. The auction went on until the candle flame expired, which, in theory, prevented last second bidding. Samuel Pepys, whose famous diary is a detailed informational source of the English Restoration, recorded two auctions in 1660 when the Admiralty auctioned surplus ships by the candle. Pepys’s diary includes a candle auction tip from a successful bidder who said that an expiring candlewick flares slightly before going out. The bidder shouted out his final bid when the wick flared and  usually won.

Founded in 1674, Sweden’s Stockholm Auction House, was the first of its kind. Sotheby’s was founded in 1744 and its first auction was a collection of rare and valuable books. Christie’s, currently the largest auction house in the world, was founded in 1766. Throughout 18th century England, art work auctions were held in coffeehouses and taverns. Highly detailed and artistic catalogs were published to promote interest in the various pieces.

The Pilgrims brought auctions to America. Selling crops, livestock, property, tobacco and slaves at auctions was a fast way to get cash. During the height of the fur trade, auctions were held each spring to sell the pelts to European merchants.

Civil War auctions were common on both sides of the conflict to get rid of surplus and the spoils of war. The auctioneer was the division Colonel. Today, some auctioneers in the U.S. call themselves “colonel” in a nod to the history of the live auction in the U.S.

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