Matthew Sturgis looks back at how the auction world evolved from Babylonian 'marriage sales', the innovations of the Dutch and the cut-throat world of the coffee houses of Covent Garden
The opening of Bonhams' handsome new saleroom in New Bond Street marks an exciting phase in the history of the auction house. It is a reminder, too, of how far things have come since the sixth century BC. The earliest known auctions were the annual 'marriage sales' held by Babylonian families to sell off their daughters to prospective husbands. The auctioneer had the delicate task of ranking the girls according to comeliness. The sale then proceeded in descending order, with the most beautiful lots sold first.
Herodotus (our source) fails to describe the saleroom, although the scene – as imagined in a stupendous Victorian painting by Edwin Long – is plausibly set in the open air of the market square. (Long's painting, most appropriately, set an auction record of its own – for a work by a living artist – when it was sold in 1882 for £6,615.) The commercially minded Romans were also keen on auctions. Indeed the word derives from the Latin for 'to grow' or 'increase'. On military campaigns the spoils of war would be sold off by trained officials, the plundered goods gathered up sub hasta – around a spear stuck into the ground (the Italian word for auction is asta). Meanwhile back in Rome, emperors not infrequently auctioned off palace furniture in the Forum to help fund their wars against the barbarians.
But the barbarians could only be kept at bay for so long. And the collapse of classical civilisation seems to have led to a collapse in auctioneering, which even the Renaissance did not immediately rectify. It really only got back into its stride in the late 1500s. It was the prosperous and practical Dutch burghers who led the way, with sales of land, household goods, tulips and art. They, however, favoured a decreasing price scale: the so-called Dutch auction. For each lot the auctioneer would start with a high price, then reduce it by regular increments (or rather by whatever the opposite of an increment is) until someone shouted "Mijnen!" or "mine". This was all very well unless two people shouted at exactly the same moment.
As a result the Dutch experimented with rising-bid auctions. Rembrandt (whose work later set many an auction record) attended one to bid up the price of a painting by a fellow artist. The enthusiasm spread over the channel even before the Dutch-born William III acceded to the English throne in 1688. Pepys mentions several auctions "by inch of candle" in his diaries; indeed the Admiralty (Pepys's employer) used this method to sell off surplus ships. The auctioneer took bids on a lot until a short length of candle burned out; the last bid taken before the flame died secured the lot.
This, of course, is not dissimilar to the system currently employed by eBay and other online auction sites. And, as with them, apparently most of the bidding happened in the last moments as the candle started to gutter.
As the 18th century advanced, dedicated auctioneers, using the more conventional 'open' bidding system, began to proliferate, particularly in London. Most sales took place in the taverns, stationer's shops and coffee houses of Covent Garden. And it was in that quarter that Christopher Cock established his Great Room in the 1720s, perhaps the first dedicated saleroom in the modern style. Both Bonhams and Phillips (which amalgamated in 2001 under the Bonhams brand) had their origins in this busy Georgian period, as did Christie's and Sotheby's. Langford's, Millington's and many other names have long since disappeared.
Most auction houses were prepared to sell anything, while also being anxious to expand into the lucrative and prestigious spheres of fine art and furniture. But even early on there were many narrowly specialist auctioneers: for coins, stamps (after they were introduced in the mid 19th century), books, carpets and even, at Steven's Rooms in Covent Garden, stuffed animals. Most of these small firms have long since been subsumed into the larger houses. Phillips, for instance, acquired the coin specialists Glendining in 1946.
Bonhams itself began life in 1793 as a specialist print auction house in Covent Garden, before moving to larger premises on Oxford Street and branching out into furniture, ceramics, fine art, 'high-class wines' and other goods. Phillips, set up in 1796 by an under-appreciated sales clerk from a rival house, covered a wide field from the start. Harry Phillips, the founder, had a great sense of style and a flair for publicity. He established his premises at fashionable 67 Bond Street. Among his many coups was the sale of Napoleon's personal effects following the former emperor's death on St Helena.
And it was to Phillips that the young Queen Victoria turned when she wanted to organise a house (or palace) sale of unwanted items following her arrival at Buckingham Palace. The varied lots included 'ten costly Gothic lanterns', 'a magnificent glass dome by the celebrated artist Doyle' and 'an electrifying machine'. Bonhams archive still holds the original catalogues for these early Bonhams and Phillips sales.
In the early heroic age of auction houses, sales could be raucous affairs, and cataloguing – when it was done at all – tended towards the wildly optimistic. At the 1795 sale of Joshua Reynolds' collection, handled by Phillips, the catalogue listed 70 van Dycks, 54 Correggios, 24 Raphaels, 44 Michelangelos and a dozen Leonardo da Vincis. (The punters seem to have exercised rather more caution: the average price achieved was £25 per picture.)
The buyers at those early sales were almost invariably dealers, who were looking to sell the work on at a profit. They often resorted to dubious practices to secure a bargain: dealers' 'rings' were formed, with parties agreeing not to bid against each other, buying the work below market value, then sharing the profits when the works were sold on to the public.
The distinction between trade and public has gradually eroded. A 19th-century pamphlet, The Ruinous Tendency of Auctioneering, lamented the "grudging and grovelling spirit" that auctions were engendering in the public: "What progress can we make in the work of civilisation, when we see a clergyman, a barrister, or a physician, truckling among a parcel of 'low fellows' at Squibb's or Robins's, for permission to get a fortunate nod at the Auctioneer, that is to enable him to save a few shillings in the purchase of trinkets and books?"
During the past 40 years this process has accelerated – without too much damage, it seems, to "the work of civilisation". Auction houses have striven to be more open to the public. Now everyone feels able to come to a saleroom, and everyone feels able to buy.
A sale at Bonhams is no longer an arcane affair, comprehensible only to insiders. Sales have informative, well-illustrated catalogues. Lots are given estimated prices. There are specialist sales to cater to specialist enthusiasms – from rare coins to Japanese art.
The salerooms themselves have grown more spacious and attractive – reaching a new height with the reopening of the Bonhams flagship. And, perhaps most importantly, to confirm Bonhams' status as not just a mart but as a fully fledged public-friendly cultural institution, it now has its own restaurant.
Matthew Sturgis is a biographer specialising in Victorian history.