The History of Auctions

What is an auction?

An auction is a practice of buying and selling goods or services. This is done by offering them up for bid, taking bids and selling them to the highest bidder. These take place in auction houses all over the world. 

There are various types of auction; however, the most common is the Open Ascending Price Auction. This kind of sale requires participants to bid openly against one another, with each new bid coming in having to be higher than the previous. Bids can be placed by participants themselves, by a proxy who calls put the bid on behalf of the member or electronically. The auction of an item ceases when no participant is willing to bid any further at which point the highest bidder must pay for their item or service. 

Some items or services up for auction may have a minimum sale price in place. In this instance, bids must exceed this price. If they do not exceed the reserve price, the item or service will remain unsold.   

So where did it all begin?

Auctions date back to 500BC, however before the 17th century they were not often held and were quite sporadic. Haggling and sale by set price were much more widespread for the sale of goods and commodities. Despite this auctions have a long history. 

The word ‘auction’ comes from the Latin word ‘augeō’ which means “I increase” or “I augment”.


Research suggests that women in Babylon were auctioned off for marriage. The auctions would begin with who the auctioneer considered to be the most beautiful woman there. The auction would continue this way with the least desirable woman being auctioned off last. During this period it was considered to be illegal for a woman to be married in any other way. 

The Roman Empire

Roman soldiers were known to drive their spears into the ground where the spoils of war were left. This would be done after a military victory, and the spoils of war would be auctioned off.

This was to be later followed by the Romans auctioning off slaves. They would be sold in the forum beneath the sign of a spear. They too were captured as the “spoils of war”, and proceeds of the sale would go towards the war effort.  

The Romans also used auctions to settle the assets of debtors whose property had been confiscated. Marcus Aurelius, the Roman Emperor from 161 to 180 often sold household furniture to pay off debts. These auctions could go on for months at a time. 

One of the most significant auctions to have ever taken place During the Roman Empire happened in 193 A.D.  The entire Roman Empire was put up for auction by the Praetorian Guard, a unit of the Imperial Roman Army made up of elite soldiers initially recruited from Italy. The Praetorian Guard killed Emperor Pertinax on 28th March, Emperor of the Roman Empire for the first three months of 193. Following his death, they offered the empire to the highest bidder. Didius Julianus outbid everyone else with 6,250 drachmas per guard. He became Emperor for nine weeks during 193, an act that started a brief civil war. Didius was beheaded two months later by a soldier in the palace, whereby Septimius Severus seised control, becoming Emperor from 193 to 211.

After the Roman Empire up until the 18th-century auctions lost their appeal in Europe.

The auction comeback

Auction by candle

During the 17th and 18th century parts of England began selling goods and leaseholds through auctions by candle. A candle sale required a candle to be lit and the end of the auction would be indicated once the flame had gone out. The intention behind this was to ensure that nobody could know exactly when the auction would end and make a last-second bid. As these auctions grew in popularity, the London Gazette began to report on the auctions of artwork at the coffee houses and taverns.     

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The first known auction house

Baron Claes Rålamb founded the first known auction house in the world in 1674.  This was located in Stockholm, Sweden.

Sotheby’s auction house

Sotheby’s which is currently the world’s second-largest auction house was founded in London on the 11th March 1744. The founding of this auction house came about when Samuel Baker supervised the disposal of several hundred rare and valuable books from the library of an acquaintance.

Christie’s auction house

By 1766 James Christie founded Christie’s auction house in London, now the world’s largest auction house to exist in the world. He also published the first ever auction catalogue.

Auction houses have continued to grow in popularity and can now be found all over the world. Providing opportunities for rare and unique pieces collectors come from all over in search of treasured items. 



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