Friday, April 10, 2009

A History Lesson

The word "auction" comes from the Latin augere, meaning "to increase" or "augment." I always find it interesting that a word so old could survive for so long, to be used today as if it were our own.
Greek scribes recorded auctions being held as early as 500 BCE.  Ancient Babylonians held auctions of women for wives, in fact it was considered illegal for a woman to be sold into marriage outside of the auction method.
In the Roman Empire a licensed auctioneer was called the "Magister Auctionarium."  The Magister Auctionarium started an auction by driving a spear into the ground.  The spear became the symbol under which auctions were held.  I've always heard that a person's name can affect what they do for a living, like a dentist named Dr. Molar or a teacher named Ms. Reading, maybe there is even more to that theory than we expect, as seems to be the case with Richard Spear, Auctioneer.
Usually an auction was held in the Roman Empire to liquidate the spoils of war, but there were other occasions when the auction method was used.  The great Marcus Aurelius, one of the most important Stoic Philosophers and the last of the "Five Good Emperors" of the Roman Empire auctioned off his furniture to pay off his debts-a sale that lasted six months.
One of the most notable auctions of all time was held in 193 CE.  Thirteen years after Rome lost Marcus Aurelius, Rome lost itself by being put on the auction block by the Praetorian Guard. On March 23rd the Guard killed emperor Pertinax and then offered the Empire to the highest bidder.  Didius Julianus won with bid of 6250 drachmas (to put that in perspective a family of three could survive on half a drachma per day) per guard, only to be beheaded two months later when Septimus Severus conquered Rome.
After the fall of the Roman Empire the auction method also fell out of favor until about the 18th century when the British began holding "auctions by candle."  A candle was lit at the beginning of a sale and ascending bids were taken until the candle flickered out.  Whoever held the highest bid at that point won the item.
By the end of the 18th century auctions were being held in taverns and coffee shops to sell art which is roughly when Sotheby's (the world's second largest auction house) and Christie's (the world's largest auction house) were established. 
From there we see auctions emerge during the American Civil War as a means of liquidating goods seized by armies.  The Colonel of the division would hold the auction which is why "Colonel" is the unofficial title for an auctioneer.
In modern times auctions are finding their place in popular culture with the success of online auctions, television shows, even a DC Comics character who is an enemy of Superman, "The Auctioneer."  Auctions have been a part of our collective human history from the gardens of Babylon and the courtyards of Rome to the battlefields of the Civil War and the pages comic books and right here in Russellville, Arkansas, once again under the sign of the spear.