The word “auction” is derived from the Latin augeo which means “I increase” or “I augment”.
For most of history, auctions have been a relatively uncommon way to negotiate the exchange of goods and commodities. In practice, both haggling and sale by set-price have been significantly more common. Indeed, prior to the seventeenth century the few auctions that were held were sporadic and infrequent.
Nonetheless, auctions have a long history, having been recorded as early as 500 B.C. According to Herodotus, in Babylon auctions of women for marriage were held annually. The auctions began with the woman the auctioneer considered to be the most beautiful and progressed to the least. It was considered illegal to allow a daughter to be sold outside of the auction method.
During the Roman Empire, following military victory, Roman soldiers would often drive a spear into the ground around which the spoils of war were left, to be auctioned off. Later slaves, often captured as the “spoils of war”, were auctioned in the forum under the sign of the spear, with the proceeds of sale going towards the war effort.
The Romans also used auctions to liquidate the assets of debtors whose property had been confiscated. For example, Marcus Aurelius sold household furniture to pay off debts, the sales lasting for months. One of the most significant historical auctions occurred in the year 193 A.D. when the entire Roman Empire was put on the auction block by the Praetorian Guard. On March 23 The Praetorian Guard first killed emperor Pertinax, then offered the empire to the highest bidder. Didius Julianus outbid everyone else for the price of 6,250 drachmas per Guard, an act that initiated a brief civil war. Didius was then beheaded two months later when Septimius Severus conquered Rome.
From the end of the Roman Empire to the eighteenth century auctions lost favor in Europe, while they had never been widespread in Asia.
In some parts of England during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries auction by candle was used for the sale of goods and leaseholds. This auction began by lighting a candle after which bids were offered in ascending order until the candle spluttered out. The high bid at the time the candle extinguished itself won the auction.
The oldest auction house in the world is Stockholm Auction House (Stockholms Auktionsverk). It was established in Sweden in 1674.
During the end of the 18th century, soon after the French Revolution, auctions came to be held in taverns and coffeehouses to sell art. Such auctions were held daily, and catalogs were printed to announce available items. Such Auction catalogs are frequently printed and distributed before auctions of rare or collectible items. In some cases these catalogs were elaborate works of art themselves, containing considerable detail about the items being auctioned.
Sotheby’s, now the world’s second-largest auction house, held its first auction in 1744. Christie’s, now the world’s largest auction house, was established around 1766. Other early auction houses that are still in operation include Dorotheum (1707), Mallams (1788), Bonhams (1793), Phillips de Pury & Company (1796), Freeman’s (1805) and Lyon & Turnbull (1826).
During the American civil war goods seized by armies were sold at auction by the Colonel of the division. Thus, some of today’s auctioneers in the U.S. carry the unofficial title of “colonel”.
The development of the internet, however, has led to a significant rise in the use of auctions as auctioneers can solicit bids via the internet from a wide range of buyers in a much wider range of commodities than was previously practical.
In 2008, the National Auctioneers Association reported that the gross revenue of the auction industry for that year was approximately $268.4 billion, with the fastest growing sectors being agricultural, machinery, and equipment auctions and residential real estate auctions.