An auction is an interesting concept – and a very old
concept. Auctions have been found to exist as far back as 500 B.C. and
have stuck around, adapting to the changes in societies and cultures.
Many pinpoint the auctioning off of Joseph of the Coat
of Many Colors (of biblical fame) into slavery by his brothers, as the
first known auction. Slave auctions unfortunately became a very common
type of early auction.
Others point to Babylon in 500 B.C. as the origin of the
auction. In these early auctions, women, sought after as brides, were
the commodities offered for sale. Attractive brides would command a
great price; unfortunately, more homely women would have to be
accompanied by a dowry, making the winning bid price negative. In other
words, the winning bidder would actually have to be paid to marry the
Some early auctions had incredibly high stakes. In 193
A.D., the entire Roman Empire was actually auctioned off! The highest
bidder, Didius Julianus, won the bidding at a price of 6,250 drachmas
for each Roman guard. He didn’t get to enjoy his purchase for long
though, since he was beheaded two months later by Septimius Severus
during his conquest of Rome.
The ancient Romans are generally credited with being the
first to organize the sale of goods at auction. The Romans used auctions
to sell goods produced in the area, as well as the spoils of Roman
conquests and property needing to be liquidated.
Asian cultures also incorporated auctions into their
societies. There is evidence that during the seventh century, auctions
were a device used by Buddhist temples and monasteries to dispose of the
possessions of deceased monks. A common type of auction used in China
was the “handshake auction” where bidders would grasp the hand of the
auctioneer and press their fingers against his hand to indicate the
amount of their bid. Each handshake was done under the cover of a cloth
so that others couldn’t see the bid.
Modern auctions, as we know them, sprung from the
Netherlands’ fine art auctions. During the 16th and 17th
centuries, paintings and prints were sold in a type of auction that
combined elements of a normal or “straight” auction with those of a
“reverse” auction. (See below for details on straight and reverse
The slave auctions represent a dark and tragic period in
American history. Slaves were shipped to America from the West Coasts of
Africa. When a slave ship arrived, the slaves were immediately prepared
for auction. For slaves that had been captured and brought to America
with members of their family, the slave auction was often the last place
in which they saw their family members, as each slave was auctioned off
and “won” by different persons.
Slave auctions generally fell under the category of
straight auctions; however, the slave traders used many means to further
their business objectives. Another common method was to charge each
buyer a flat rate, allowing the buyers to rush into the pen of the
slaves, grabbing the ones they wanted.
In the 1800’s, the U.S. began to use auctions in areas
besides agriculture and slavery. In 1883, the U.S. opened its first fine
art auction house, the American Art Association, founded by Thomas Kirby
in New York City. The Association added touches of class and theatrics
to the auction format that would be imitated by many later auction
houses. Famous auction houses such as Sotheby’s and Christie’s, which
opened their U.S. offices in the 1960s, further refined the
The new era for auctions
began in 1995 with the birth of the online auction. The founding of
Internet auction companies such as eBay, has led to a renaissance of
sorts for the auction. Online auctions have reintroduced auctions to the
masses, and changed the way goods are bought and sold. The online
auction market in 2005 was estimated as a $35 billion industry, and the
live auction industry at $241 billion.