The Origins of Auction Etiquette

by GuestBlogger on November 19, 2012


Auctions offer a highly organized method to sell goods quickly while maximizing the value of the items. Complex, eloquent auction etiquette has developed over time. Today, when we think of auctions, we think of a bid-happy crowd of spectators enthusiastically watching the auctioneer, who speaks with exceptional speed and command. Though auction styles vary considerably, especially with the introduction of technology into society, there is still that nostalgic, stereotypical concept of the auction. From where did these auction etiquettes originate?

Auctions Today

Today, auctions are used to liquidate estates and to sell valuable items. Auctions have recently become a more popular way to sell property and real estate. Specially trained auctioneers are hired by sellers to conduct auctions, taking bids from buyers. Usually bids start out at a certain base amount (the absolute lowest bid is set by the seller) and go up from there; this is called an ascending auction. Though they are not as common, descending auctions do occur; descending auctions start at a certain price and move down. Usually, the highest bidder will pay the amount of his bid, but sometimes the highest bidder will purchase the item at a price equal to the bid of the second highest bidder.

Greek Origins

The earliest recorded account of the auction dates back to about 500 B.C. Greek historians described how the ancient Greeks would use auctions to sell women. Wealthy benefactors would sell unattractive women into marriage. Starting at a set amount, auctioneers would reduce the price until someone in a crowd was willing to pay an agreed amount for the woman. Buyers would yell out jokes or snide remarks until they saw an interesting prospect for the right price, in which case they would yell in approval. The system was very unorganized and informal. As far as historians know, the first auctions were exclusively used to sell women or slaves and were as culturally relevant as economically.

Roman Influence

The Roman Empire added its own influences to the auction. First, they coined the term “atrium auctionarium”, which is the Latin root from which we derive the word “auction”. The Roman government would cease private property and auction it off to the public. These auctions were the first examples of an ascending auction, which is the most used type of auction today. Roman soldiers regularly auctioned the spoils of war they collected from battle; these items were called “sub hasia”, which means “under the spear”, and demonstrate how the popularity of auctions began to rise in the western hemisphere.

Chinese Auctions

China also developed its own, culturally unique forms of auctioning. The extent to which these early Chinese auctions influenced modern auction etiquette is unknown. However, it is clear that Chinese Buddhist monks have been using auctions for nearly 2000 years. Monks would auction off the possessions of dead monks and use the funds to help support monasteries and to build new temples.

European Influences

The auctioneer developed as a way to conceal the identity of the seller. During the Renaissance and Elizabethan eras, it was good to be left anonymous when selling because social barriers and classes hindered an auction’s success. Auctions were also used to sell agriculture produce, fish, and slaves throughout Eastern Europe. It was during this time that auction sizes began to grow, so participants were given an identity number to help auctioneers keep track of who was bidding. Today this number system is still used.

About the author

Eric Stratton writes for; they auction many things, such as their backhoe for sale along with plenty of others.

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