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History of Auctions

The history of auctions extends back to 500 B.C. when Herodotus reported the use of an auction. These auctions were for the purpose of selling women under the condition that they be married following purchase.  Whether or not these auctions were ascending or descending bid auctions was not recorded.

The Roman Empire used auctions to liquidate property and estate goods. The mechanism implemented was referred to as the "atrium auctionarium". It is not known whether or not these auctions were ascending or descending bid auctions, but the name used for the market mechanism would lead one to deduce that the auctions were ascending. The word "actus" in Latin means increasing, and since it is incorporated into the name of the market it is assumed that bids were made in an increasing fashion.

Within the Roman Empire the "atrium auctionarium" was also used by the soldiers to sell goods acquired "sub hasia"(under the spear). Probably the most bizarre account of early auctions concerns the year 193 A.D. when the entire Roman Empire was put on the auction block after being sacked. Aside from the earlier accounts of the Roman auctions, there also exists evidence of Buddhist monks in China using auctions to fund the creation of temples, as it became customary to auction off the property of deceased monks for this purpose.

Evolution to Modern Day Auctions

The earliest modern era records of auctions appeared in the Oxford English Dictionary in 1595. Therefore, the presence of auctions in England preceded this date yet but how much is not known. Following the appearance of auctions in the Oxford English Dictionary, the London Gazette often reported the auctioning or artwork at coffeehouses and taverns throughout London in the late 17th century. Early auction houses were created in the 18th century. Sotheby's was created in 1744 and Christie's was created in 1766.

Early accounts of the use of auctions in America occurred in the South when slaves were often sold at auction. Auctions were also used to liquidate estates. Interestingly, it was common for the owner of auctioned goods to remain anonymous because the social norms of the time did not look favorably upon auctions.

Aside from the early modern records of the use of auction mechanisms in England and America, auctions were used in the Netherlands and Germany as well in the later part of the 19th century. Auctioning in the Netherlands dates back to 1887 when it was used for the sale of fruits and vegetables. Reportedly, a grower named Jongerling arrived at the inland harbor, Broek op Langendijk in North Holland. Upon arrival he discovered a strong demand for his produce and instead of liquidating his produce in the usually customary fashion of selling to a specific dealer, he decided to allow the buyers to compete with each other by using an auction.

In the same year as Jongerling in North Holland, fisherman in Germany began to use auctions to sell their catch when arriving in port. These fish auctions allowed the fisherman to rapidly liquidate their catch and spend more time fishing to satisfy consumer demand.

(This brief history of auctions was extracted from the work of Ralph Cassidy, Jr. in his book Auctions and Auctioneering, University of California Press, 1967)

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