From BC to eBay: The History of Auctions

DPA Auctions

A single flame flickers on top of a mess of wax positioned on a table in the center of a room. Nobody can look away. The group sitting around it is waiting to see if whoever placed the last bid will walk away with the auction item, or if someone will slide in with a higher offer before the light disappears.

Although auctions today have replaced the candle used by 17th century auctioneers, with an online stopwatch and thumbnail image, that same spirit of anticipation that drove the industry then and even as far back as ancient Rome, can still be felt today.

And the empire goes to…

The ancient romans were often so good at conquering that they had a surplus of cool, foreign items whose precise market value they had little knowledge of. So, naturally they tried to find the best offer for everything they found in one fell swoop with auctions held in town squares. Ironically, in 193 AD, Rome itself was sold to the highest bidder, Didius Julianus, when the Praetorians took control of the empire from Pertinax.

Finding a Foundation

Auctioning then fell into a lull for nearly one and a half millennia, until candle auctions began popping up in northern Europe. Then, a pillar of the industry, Stockholm Auktionsverk ,was built in 1674. Another future global leader, Sotheby’s, opened its doors in 1744, shortly followed by the preeminent Christie’s in 1766. These three continue to be where the world’s treasures are typically sold today.

War continued to boost auctioning during this time with both sides of the American Civil War delegating their Colonels to sell goods seized in battle. That’s why you still might hear an auctioneer referred to as “colonel” today.

Sold to the man clicking in his undies

While modern auctioneering found its footing many centuries ago, the Internet accelerated the industry to revenues unimaginable before. In May of 1995 OnSale became the first online auctioneering website with the little known eBay launching close after in September. The now nearly unlimited bidders auctions could access increased the number, variety, and in some cases the price of items sold.

Niche market auctioneers, whose number of bidders seemed fixed until the Internet allowed them to expand their geographical reach, now had the opportunity to grow their customer base further than just those in driving distance. Those already with a strong hold in their industry, like Del Peterson & Associates in agriculture, were able to capitalize on this by listening to their already loyal customer base in their transition to more accessible platforms.