A potted history of auctioneers

Posted on 4 January 2023
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A potted history of auctioneers

Auctions have been documented in history for millennia, traceable back to 500 BC in Babylon, when the less ethical practice of auctioning off women was commonplace. Today, auctions remain a popular way of realising an item’s current value via a bidding system, with everything from property to priceless jewels going under the hammer. In this blog, Viewber explores how auctions have evolved to encompass property.

193 AD: Empire for sale

It was in Roman times that auctions became a common way of trading possessions and goods. In fact, auctions were favoured by Marcus Aurelius, who is thought to have auctioned off prized heirlooms and furniture over a two month period. The era’s most famous auction, however, was the audacious sale of the entire Roman Empire – perhaps history’s first ever property lot that was open to bidders. The empire was put to auction by the Praetorian Guard in 193 AD, who first killed Pertinax before announcing the highest bidder could claim the entire empire. The auction was won by Didius Julianus, whose winning bid was 6,250 drachmas per guard.

Beer and bids from the 17th century

Auctions as we know them today started emerging during the 17th century in France and England. Taverns and coffee houses became venues in which to sell art and ‘chattels’ (personal property), with catalogues printed in advance to advertise the items available.

Chaos at olde worlde ‘by candle’ auctions 

While Rome’s Marcus Aurelius was happy to run an auction that lasted an alleged eight weeks, latter day auctioneers wanted business concluded more swiftly and the ‘by candle’ method was born. This saw a candle placed and lit in plain sight of bidders, and the auction would run until the candle went out. Historical records show a candle was used as far back as 1368, with auctions a common way of solving inheritance and estate disputes, with leaseholds also bought by the highest bidder.

‘By candle’ auctions proved problematic, however, with sly tactics deployed to skew a sale. Dragging out the bidding so lots went for a cheaper price and coughing hard to prematurely extinguish the flame became common, while the darkness that ensued after a candle went out often made it hard to distinguish who the successful bidder actually was. The chaos that often ensued was even noted by diarist Samuel Pepys, who wrote in 1662 “when the candle is going out, how they bawl and dispute afterwards who bid the most first.”

18th century: knock on wood

Candle auctions were soon replaced by a more orderly process, with three knocks of the auctioneer’s gavel spelling the end of the sale – a sound many attending an ‘in-person’ auction still hear today. It was also in the 18th century that large auction houses rose to prominence, with familiar names including Christie’s and Sotheby’s establishing themselves.

19th century: moving from pigs into property 

The history of property-specific auctions is more patchy than potted, with many auctioneers in the 19th century diversifying into land and homes after specialising in livestock. As we wrote about in our potted history of estate agency’, property was traditionally inherited, rather than sold, with rent collection an agent’s main activity.

One of the first documented shifts towards selling property at auction can be traced back to the late 1800s, when Alfred Savill and Knight Frank & Rutley were listed as auctioneers, valuers and surveyors. Although both agencies, now trading as Savills and Knight Frank, respectively, fully embrace open market estate agency today, they both retain property auction divisions.

20th century: the era of great house disposals

In the early 1900s, it was Herbert Jackson-Stops (now trading as Jackson-Stops) who made a name for himself on the property auction circuit, after previously being involved with weekly livestock auctions. At the age of just 37, Herbert presided over one of the most memorable auctions of modern times – the sale of historic Stowe House, its contents and even the deer that roamed the grounds.

The auction was unique as it ran for 18 days in 1921 and was such a mournful event that it prompted Herbert to write the following forward in the auction catalogue: “It is with a feeling of profound regret that the Auctioneer pens the opening lines of a sale catalogue which may destroy forever the glories of historic Stowe, and disperse to the winds of Heaven its wonderful collection, leaving memories of the spacious past.” Stowe’s auction paved the way for many more historic houses to be sold at auction – a trend that continues to this day.

Buying and selling property at auction grew in popularity as the 20th century progressed. Catalogues that regularly featured dilapidated homes and distressed properties earned auctions niche status, with many properties un-mortgageable and therefore attracting cash buyers.

The ‘exchange on the day’ transaction and a requirement to complete the property purchase within 28 days meant many home movers still preferred to deal with High Street agents and the open property market. This conventional route gave them time to arrange a mortgage and build a chain without the pressure to complete in less than a month.

21st century: modern methods broaden appeal

That was until two university friends, who had studied surveying together and spent time working in estate agencies, set out to shake up the world of property auctions. In 2009, Jamie Cooke and Ben Ridgeway launched the modern method of auction (MMA), designed to entice more people to buy and sell property at auction.

Their system of setting a realistic but enticing starting price for a property lot is accompanied by a traditional reserve. The seller pays for an auction legal pack and buyers are invited to bid online, with the highest bid winning. This is where parallels with traditional property auctions end.

Rather than exchanging on the auction day and paying a full deposit, buyers using MMA instead pay a non-refundable reservation fee. They then have typically 28 days to exchange and then another 28 days to complete, giving them enough time to secure a home loan.

The idea spawned iamsold.co.uk, which is part of the iamproperty group, and is now the UK’s largest independent residential auctioneer, working with over 5,000 estate agency branches.

Tech takeover

Despite what you may think, online auctions have been around since the 1970s, although they largely dealt with personal items, rather than property, and were conducted on early web forums. Online bidding among the masses really took off when eBay was founded in 1995 but it took a while for property auctions to go mainstream.

It was documented in Country Life magazine that the first live online property auction in the UK was held on 15th May 2008 and run by i-bidder.com. In 2015, property consultancy Allsop launched the country’s first-ever online-only auction for new-build homes, followed by its first online-only property auction for existing properties in 2018. From 2020, online-only auctions became more commonplace thanks to social distancing and the pandemic. Savills Auctions soon entered the digital fray and ran its first ever remote bidding-only property auction in March 2020.

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