History of Auction Houses

Contemporary art emerged together with the development of such phenomenon as mass media. Abstract paintings of Jackson Pollock and pop art of Andy Warhol – all of them reflected connection with the culture they were shaped up in. This culture was often called “nobrow”, since the elite was ousted by more democratic and commercially orientated society. What had been considered valuable before now was defined as “popular”.

In the 21st century, popularity in art is correlated with demand for this or that artist. But the “fresher” is an art piece, the harder it is to define its value. Therefore very often decisions of purchasing art works are influenced not only with their quality, but with the factors that can ensure a buyer.

Today the most reliable indicator if the object’s value (both material and ideological) is the author’s rating in auction houses. The major part of contemporary art goes through them. I bet most of you have heard of Christie’s and Sotheby’s. The pieces sold by auction rapidly rise in their price: not only because of the well-thought demand making and marketing strategies, but also because of the reliability of the estimate, system, formed by a long history of their existence.

The first mention of auctions as a method of selling and buying dates back to Ancient Roman epoch. The word “auction” itself derive from Latin “ augeō” – “I increase”. It reflects the key principle, according to which an item is sold to the person, who offers the higher price. The forthcoming auction was advertised in two ways: a public announcement and writing notification with auction details. Some recordings witness that they were held in special places ‑ “atrium auctionarium”. You probably must have imagined that biddings were yelled out, yet in reality all was in silence and biddings were made by a nod or raise of hand.

The activity of British auction houses is especially interesting, since it’s the sample of the auctioning system all over the world. Rapid development of Great Britain, its expansionistic policy and desire to set the fashion in culture allowed it occupy one of the leading placed in art world. Some of the earliest evidence say that first bidding were held in taverns of London. And the main product there were books.

baker and christie

By the end of the 17th century some typically English conditions of auctioning were originated. For instance, “sale by candle”, when an inch-long candle was lighted and the buyer, who had made the last bidding before the candle faded, won the bid.
In the 18th century there were several successful British organizers of auctions. Christopher Cock. It was him, who placed the advertisement of the auction in the newspaper – The London Evening Post (March, 1739). After having acquainted with Cock, Samuel Baker and James Christie decided to create the greatest auction houses – Christie’s and Sotheby’s.

Sotheby’s was opened in 1744 and Christie’s – in 1766. Despite of the difference in 22 years, Christie’s is believed to be the oldest auction, which sells art objects. It can be explained by the fact that, unlike James Christie’s, Samuel Backer sold mostly books for a long time. Unlike rush around contemporary auctions, book- and art-selling in the 17th century were held in a very unhurried manner, taking sometimes up to two weeks. Curiously, in the case of dispute around an item, it should be put up for sale again or the owner should be determined by counting the majority of representatives of the organization, which were buying it.

In 1766 two important events took place. First of all, James Christie finally settled in the Pall Mall street, positioning his business as auction for luxury and everyday objects. The elegant manner, in which he carried biddings, impressed everyone, giving him a sobriquet the ‘King of Epithets’. The same year, a wrathful pamphlet on Samuel Baker were published. There Baker were accused in unfair organization of auctions. Anyway, both auction houses often faced harsh criticism and even react on resentment of their participants.

History Auction Houses

In the 18th century the flourishing of Christie’s and Sotheby’s were prompted by French revolution, when a piece of Old Masters could have been bought in Louvre only for ten franks. The influx of art objects in Britain forced auction houses to develop new methods of self-advertisement to increase sales. One of them were advertisement in newspapers, like “Morning Post” and “The Times”.

Expand of commercial relations was conductive for opening of the auction houses in European continent and in America. Though, London auction-holders were preoccupied with new system of saving and selling items. The crowd often called them “robbers”, however, they defended in a rather ironic manner: “In this free and happy republic, every man has a right to be ruined in his own way”.

In 1861, after the death of the last of Sothebys, their business passed into the hands of Samuel Sotheby’s partners – booksellers John Wilkinson and Tom Hodge. Since the 19th century Sotheby’s and Christie’s have been following the same policy – auction for wealthy and famous, connoisseurs and lovers of art.

In 1909 Sir Montague-Barlow, a Conservative party politician, became one of the owner of “Sotheby’s”. During that period Sotheby’s started selling not only books, but paintings as well. As the legend says, Barlow was inspired, when saw several paintings, ready to be sent to Christie’s. He decided to extend his business and the first bedding of paintings took place in 1913. As they say, it was even more successful than Christie’s.


In the second half of the 20th century, when contemporary art evolved, action houses decided to move in that direction, At first Sotheby’s, and later Christie’s, opened the departments of contemporary art. They offered pieces of pop-artists. According to the statistics, in 1980 – 1981, the income of Sotheby’s from contemporary art bids reached 317 millions of pounds, unlike in 1961, when it was only 177 millions of pounds, and 1957 with 17,6 millions.

At the same time, searching for new vectors of development, at first Christie’s in 1973, and than in Sotheby’s in 1988, opened access to the results of the auctions. By making such information public they improved credibility to the collectors and turn each bids into a grandiose event. That gave them possibility to influence on the market condition and artistic tendencies. Since then the art world lives by one rule: nothing witnesses the value of the piece as its price.

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