When in Rome: the history of auctions

Emperors, empires, monks, money, slavery, selling women, and even murder. Take a few steps back in time to find out about the unique past of auctions.

Jay Mark Hendrix
Auction History

Auctions have become a popular option to sell real estate and personal property, largely because of their quick and efficient nature. Auctioneering has continued to change and evolve to a point where you don’t even have to attend some modern-day auctions to participate and bid on items. They are essentially shows, where the auctioneer is the star and the items for sale are his props. Almost anything you can think of has been sold at auctions. They no longer consist of spears, candles, marriages, or even death, but now are comprised of gavels, laptops, and phones. If you're a fan of auctions, make sure to take a look at land for sale at auction.

Fortunately, civilization has become enlightened enough today to realize what should and shouldn’t be considered property. Interestingly enough, many people don’t know much about the history of auctions and how they developed into what they are today.

Ancient auctions

The word auction is derived from the Latin word augeo which means “I increase” or “I augment.” The auction method has been around for over 2,000 years. According to the ancient historian Herodotus (a contemporary of Socrates), auction-like scenarios were happening around 500 B.C. in ancient Greece, where women were auctioned off by their families as wives. Customarily they went in order from the most beautiful to women that weren’t considered very attractive. Families of the less attractive brides may end up having to throw something else valuable in the deal in order to make the sale happen.

The Roman Forum
The Roman Forum was a rectangular gathering area in the center of Rome where auctions were sometimes held.

Rome was the first nation to license auctioneers. The auction process was significant during the Roman Empire to aid in war efforts and help to satisfy debts. “Spoils of war,” including slaves would be auctioned off by Roman Soldiers. The Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius got into debt and it took him months to auction his own furniture in hopes of getting out of it. Possibly the largest ancient auction occurred in 193 A.D. when the Praetorian Guard killed emperor Pertinax and put the entire Roman Empire up for auction. It was sold for 6,250 drachmas per guard to Didius Julianus, who was beheaded two months later.

Early middle age auctions

An ancient Buddhist text called the Vinaya indicates that in India, sale by auction was used to dispose of belongings of deceased monks. This could have taken place as early as the 7th century. It clearly refers to the sale of dead monk’s possessions “in the midst of the community.”

17th century auctions

Around this time period, the auction by candle method became popular in England to sell goods and leaseholds. In a candle auction, the end of the auction was indicated by the candle flame going out. The logic behind this type of auction was to ensure there were no last-second bidders since no one knew exactly when the candle flame would expire. Samuel Pepys, an administrator of the Navy of England and member of Parliament, kept a famous diary where he wrote about a successful bidder who figured out how to beat the system. He noticed that just before the flame expires, the candle-wick slightly flares up. He would use this secret to announce his bid at a most opportune time.

Candle Auction
Candle Auction Flame

The first known auction house, Stockholm Auction House, was founded in 1674 in Stockholm Sweden. The earliest auction house still in business today is Sotheby’s. It was founded in 1744 in London, and is the second largest in the world, behind Christie’s.

The 17th century is also when auctions started in America. They date back to when the pilgrims arrived on the eastern shores. Auctions are one of the quickest ways to turn goods into cash, and it was no different in the 1600s. Among the items auctioned were crops, livestock, tools, fur, imports, entire farms, and slaves.

18th century auctions

George Washington was an enthusiastic auction buyer. Art was commonly auctioned in the 1700s and these were frequently held in taverns. Extremely elaborate catalogs were printed to announce and describe the items being auctioned.

18th Century Auction

Civil War era auctions

Auctions in the U.S. really began to thrive around the time period of the “War between the States.” Possessions and all kinds of “spoils of war” were seized by armies and auctioned off. Auctioneers today are often called “Colonels" because only Colonels could run these auctions.

20th century auctions

Auction schools came to the United States in the 1900s, and this is also when auctioning real estate started to become popular. As a result of the Great Depression, many auctioneer's businesses seem to dry up, while others capitalized on people badly needing to liquidate their assets in a poverty-stricken economy.

Modern-day auctions

Auctions took off and became bigger than ever after World War II, and have not slowed down since. Just like any other business that's survived, auctioneers have taken advantage of the technological opportunities and advancements. The internet has brought auctions into people’s homes no matter where you live. More people can participate in more places with the opportunity to bid on a wider range of items. Real estate is one of the fastest-growing auction categories. If you're looking for land, take a look at our upcoming land auctions.

Modern Day Online Auction

People love auctions. They're exciting, and you have the chance to come out with tremendous items, items you may not be able to find anywhere else, for a low price. They're valuable for the auctioneers making a living, appealing to the public potentially getting a steal, and satisfying for the sellers who end up with their property sold quickly and efficiently.