A short history of art auctions
The tradition of auctions goes back to antiquity and is a interesting story of the development of the prices of artworks and the meaning inside the society. In early years auctions were useful to sell objects and slaves.
In 1742 the first art collection came under the hammer and this has been the beginning of a constant development to the billion dollar business it is today.
500 BC — In Babylon there were held annual auctions of women for marriage. The auctions began with the woman the auctioneer considered the most beautiful. It was forbidden by law to sell the daughter outside this auction method. (Source: Herodout)
27 BC and later — The soldiers of the Roman Empire usually auctioned their spoils of war off after return from the battle. Later they also auctioned slaves which were captured as spoils of war.
193 AC — The entire Roman Empire came to auction by the Praetorian Garde. On 23 March they killed the emporer Pertinax and afterwards offered the empire to the highest bidder. After a not yet proven legend Didius Julianus purchased every guard for 6,250 drachmas — he was the winner of the auction. Two month later Didius has been killed by Septimus Severus.
It is remarkable that from the end of the Roman Empire to the Eighteenth century auctions in Europe lost their favor — in Asia they have generally never been popular.
1637 AC — On 2 February there were held the so called Weeskamer auction. In this auction the prices for tulips climaxed. They reached for 99 packages of tulip bulbs around 90,000 gulden. Only three days later it came to the collapse of the tulip mania. At the auction in Haarlem held in a tavern no offered tulip made the anticipated price. That meant the collapse of the entire tulip market in the Netherlands. The prices falled downwards with up to 95% loss of worth.
1660 AC — The history of the auction also continued in the Seventeenth century in England, where they make use of a candle to show the end of the bidding opportunity. The Admirality in England sold surplus ships „by an inch of candle“.
1674 AC — Baron Claes Rålamb founded the first known auction house worldwide. The Stockholms Auktionsverk.
1742 AC — the first collection came to auction. It was the important collection by Edward, Earl of Oxford. The auction run six days and everything from coin to a painting by Anthonys van Dyck was included.
1744 AC — Samuel Baker founded the second-largest and today still excisting auction house, Sotheby’s. They first focused to auction prints, medals and coins. It was only in 1913 that Sotheby’s sold its first artwork — a painting by Frans Hals for 9,000 guineas.
1766 AC — James Christie founded the auction house of the same name Christie’s. Today it is the world’s largest auction house.
1771 AC — Catherine the Great from Russia bought a work by the Dutch painter Gerard Dou to raise the respect for Russia among the European states. Unfortunately the work sunken in a Finnish port after she set the record price at auction. According to the legend the painting still remains in the port today. Waiting for rescue.
By the end of the Eighteenth century art auctions were held in taverns and coffeehouses. There were printed catalogues to show the items in advance. Christie’s established its reputation of the world leading auction house and after the French Revolution it got the status as the major centre of the art world.
1861 AC and later — During the American Civil War goods which were confiscated by the Army came to auction. They were auctioned by the Colonel of the division. That is why in some U.S. auction houses the auctioneer is inoffiacially called ‚Colonel‘ — still today.
The Great Depression and also WWII had a profund effect on the auction market and on the taste. Until 1957 there weren’t any record results at auctions. Up from 1957 the interest for abstract images raised. The leaders of the market get more and more interested in purchasing Impressionism and Post-Impressionism.
1980 AC and later — Japanese buyers set records for two works by Van Gogh and for one work by Picasso. In this years art became more and more recognized as a financial assett.
Today — the auction market is complexe and there are many auction houses around the world. Furthermore the internet makes this world a bit more transparent and all the information about the offers and results are available also for beginners.
That change makes buying at auction very interesting for young collectors of every category. There is nothing which can’t be sold or purchased at auction. From vintage handbags to wine, furniture to middle age instruments of torture and artworks of all techniques from all epochs.
Originally published at www.jungsammler.at.