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A Brief History of Auctions

Auctions have been taking place in one form or another in a variety of commodities since the time of the Babylonian Empire. In fact, the earliest record of an organized auction is of the annual marriage market of Babylon. Once a year the men of Babylon would gather around while a herald (auctioneer) would accept bids for maidens. The herald would begin the auction with the most "beautiful" girls and work his way through to the "ugliest". It was not unusual for the herald to accept negative bids. This tended to occur from time to time when a girl, up for bid, was disabled. The large winning bids for the more beautiful girls offset the herald's losses from the less blessed girls of Babylon.


At the height of the Roman Empire, the Roman soldiers conducted auctions right on the battlefield. After a victorious Roman battle a solider would throw his spear into the ground and auction off the "surplus spoils of war." The Roman military also auctioned off slaves. These slaves were captives from military victories. The money raise at these auctions was used to pay for the military campaigns. As the Roman Empire came to an end auctions became fewer and fewer.


During the Middle Ages emphasis was placed on being self-sufficient. The majority of the population were surfs. This meant that most of their time and crops were given to their Lord. For the most part, the surfs fabricated everything they needed to live. During this time there was a relatively small population that could afford to participate in an auction and a relatively small circulation of coins. These two factors did not lend to the utilization of auctions.


Beginning in the seventeenth century a reappearance of auctions began. During this time four types of auctions developed which shaped how current auctions are conducted today. The four types are as follows:

1.Auctions using a Hammer

This hammer approach for an auctioneer to control bidding is still used today. Bids were and are excepted until no one is willing to bid any higher.

2. Hourglass Auctions

This only allowed bidding to occur for a limited time. Bids were excepted until the last grain of sand left the top of the hourglass. The last bid called before the glass was empty won.

3. Candle Auction

The is the same idea as the hourglass auction. An experienced bidder would know to wait to call his bid until smoke came off the flame of the candle. This smoke always occurred right before the flame burnt out. This was almost a sure fire way of making sure your bid was the last called and the winning bid.

4. Dutch Auction

This style of auction originated in Holland. This is when the auctioneer begins at a high price and quotes smaller and smaller bids until there is a buyer. This type of auction is not used very often.


Auctions have gone through several changes since the first auction gathering held in Babylon. History notes that the first catalogue used for listing items to be auctioned was used in 1717, during a sale of books that belonged to Ebenezer Pemberton of Boston. Garraway in London began to operate an auction business out of a central building in 1844. Today we can see the results of the seventeenth resurgence of auctions as they have evolved to the point of of occurring in building to occurring on the Internet.

(Engelbrecht-Wiggans, 1983)


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