Noah H. Mason Auctioneering

Auctions - A History

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Auctions - A History
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Most scholars agree that the earliest recorded account of auctions was written by the Greek historian, Herodotus, around 500 B.C.  He described Babylonian wedding auctions where women were sold for the purpose of marriage.  These were descending auctions.  The offers for brides started high and went down until a bidder accepted the maiden.  Less comely women had to pay a dowery to be accepted and thus the price could be negative.  Auctions were used extensively during the Roman Empire.  The auction process became more defined with four key figures: the dominus, on whose behalf the property was sold (consignor); the argentarius (organizer and financial backer); the praecox (promoter and auctioneer) and the emptor (highest and final bidder).  The auctions were held in the "atrium auctionarium".  After a military victory a Roman soldier would plant his spear in the ground to mark the location of his spoils.  Later he would put these goods up for sale at auctions.
The now-rare term, subhastation, meaning sale by auction, came from Latin, subhastare (to sell by public auction) which in turn comes from sub (under) and hasta (spear).  Subhastare - under the spear.  Roman business agents were said to have accompanied warriors into battle to facilitate the expected sales.  Ancient Rome holds the title of history's most preposterous auction.  In the year 193 A.D., the Praetorian Guard killed Pertinax, the emperor, and put the entire Roman Empire on the auction block for sale to the highest bidder.  The Empire was purchased by Didius Julianus.  After the fall of the Roman Empire, history does not reveal a great deal about auctions until the European Middle Ages.  King Henry VII of England instituted some of the earliest auction laws, including auction licenses, in the 15th century.  Soon after the colonization of America, the accepted manner of selling furs, clapboard and other necessities was at auction.
History of the early colonial period in New England makes little mention of the auctioneer until the move into the western frontier began.  The settlers were selling their land, crops and other precious items under the auctioneer's banner.

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