Auctions Work

National Auctioneers Association

History of Auctions

Auctions have existed for more than 2,000 years and continue to grow in popularity every year.

Ancient Greeks & Romans

Records handed down from ancient Greeks document auctions occurring as far back as 500 B.C. In Rome, around the time of Christ, auctions were popular for family estates and the selling of war plunder. One of the most significant historical auctions occurred in 193 A.D. when the Praetorian Guard put the entire Roman Empire on the auction block.

Auctions in the United States

American auctions date back to the arrival of the Pilgrims on America’s eastern shores in the 1600s and continued in popularity during colonization with the sale of crops, imports, livestock, tools, and entire farms. Colonels during the American Civil War were the only people allowed to auction war plunder and today some auctioneers still carry the title of “Colonel.” 

Auction schools came to the United States in the early 1900s. The Great Depression created many opportunities for auctioneers, as their services were needed to liquidate the assets of individuals and businesses hurt by the economy.

Auctions Today

While most people think about auctions in terms of farms, cars, antiques and art, today auctions play a role in nearly every asset sold.

  1. Real estate auctions are as viable an option for luxury properties as they are for foreclosures.
  2. Nonprofits and other charitable organizations rely on benefit auction professionals to raise funds that help people in need every day.
  3. Assets like restaurant equipment, heavy equipment and construction machinery, government surplus and seizures, industrial and manufacturing equipment, recreational vehicles, office equipment, retail store fixtures, trucks and trailers are all sold very successfully at auction.
  4. Many personal property auctioneers are also working as appraisers, as they are knowledgeable experts in assets like fine art, jewelry, collectibles, antiques, coins, vintage cars, etc.
  5. In addition to the large collector car auctions you see on TV, there’s also big business in auto auctions selling vehicles to local and regional auto resellers.
  6. And yes, farm and livestock auctions are alive and very well in the auction industry.
  7. The emergence of online auctions expanded seller capability in all asset classes, opening up a whole new buyer pool.

Did You Know?

  • The word “auction” derives from the Latin word “auctus,” which means “increasing.”
  • Rome was the first to license auctioneers.
  • Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius sold family furniture at auction to satisfy debts.
  • The “Magister Auctionarium” drove a spear into the ground to start the auction. Today, some auctioneers use gavels many times throughout an auction.
  • Founded in 1674 by Baron Claes Rålamb, Stockholms Auktionsverk is the oldest auction house still in business.
  • Candles were used in the 1700s at auctions to declare the winner. If you were the high bidder at the time when the candle extinguished itself, you won the auction.
  • In the mid-1700s, auctions were commonly held in taverns. Elaborate and detailed catalogs for works of art were considered art themselves.
  • America’s first president, George Washington, was an avid auction buyer.
  • Jones’ National School of Auctioneering and Oratory was the first American auction school and was established in Davenport, Iowa, in 1906.

If you have auction history to add to this page, please contact us at

%d bloggers like this: