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10 Auction Facts You Won’t Believe

31 May 2024
A man in a suit presenting to a group of people in an auction.

Auctions have long captivated the human imagination, serving as vibrant marketplaces where art masterpieces, rare collectables, luxurious automobiles and other sought-after goods are sold to budding collectors and auction enthusiasts. Modern-day auctions offer a more dynamic approach to widen the suspense-filled events we traditionally recognise. However, many people may be unaware of the rich and often bizarre history surrounding the auction world, from its earliest roots to historical mega-money sales. Today, we’ll take an enjoyable journey back in time to explore the best facts the auction world has to offer. 

1. Auctions Are Probably Older Than You Think…

painting of the City of Babylon

It’s fitting to start with the first auction ever recorded, which dates back to 500 BC in the city of Babylon, the ruins of which are found about 55 miles from Baghdad, Iraq. According to well-known Greek historian, Herodotus, the first documented auctions took place within the city, which was once considered to be the largest in the world. But, what was up for auction? Well, young women, to be precise, were auctioned into marriage as shown in a painting by Edwin Long. 

2. Stockholm Contains the World’s Oldest Auction House

Close shot of an auction hammer

The oldest auction house in the world is the Stockholm Auction House, known as Stockholms Auktionsverk, which was established in 1674. It continues to operate today, making it a significant part of auction history. The auction house is a “stock exchange trading floor” for Swedish and international art, antiques and design. Some of the most notable visitors include King Karl XI, King Gustav III, Swedish national bard Carl Michael Bellman and authors August Strindberg and Selma Lagerlöf. 

3. The Entire Roman Empire Was Once Auctioned

Roman general with an auction hammer

Yes, this is genuinely true. The Roman Empire used auctions for various purposes, including selling the spoils of war. One of the most famous historical auctions occurred in 193 AD when the Praetorian Guard auctioned off the entire Roman Empire to the highest bidder, which happened to be Didius Julianus, a 60-year-old man who had distinguished himself in politics and the military. His reign didn’t last long though, following his assassination at the hands of the Praetorian Guard after 66 days. Money can’t buy you happiness, but it could - it appears -  buy you the Roman Empire. 

4. The Most Expensive Artwork Ever Sold for $450 million

Salvator Mundi by Leonardo da Vinci

From the Roman Empire to artwork worth $450 million USD, auction houses have seen it all. As of recent records, Leonardo da Vinci's painting "Salvator Mundi" holds the record for the most expensive artwork sold at auction, fetching $450.3 million USD (£353,781,000) in November 2017. The buyer was anonymous at the time, but the New York Times reported that the buyer was acting on behalf of Saudi Prince Bader bin Abdullah bin Mohammed bin Farhan al-Saud. The painting has since been owned by the Saudi Arabian Culture Ministry.

5. Backwards Auctions - First Bidder Wins

Auction hammer with the Dutch flag behind

Auction-goers will be familiar with the usual auction process, starting low and raising the bids as time goes on. Well, have you ever heard of it being the other way around? The "Dutch Auction", named after the Dutch tulip auctions, is a unique auction format where the auctioneer begins with a very high asking price which is lowered until some participant is willing to accept the auctioneer's price. The first bid officially wins the auction, meaning there are no bidding wars involved.

6. The Longest Auction By a Single Auctioneer - A Marathon, Not a Sprint

We’ve had backwards auctions, but what about the longest auction by a single auctioneer? This title officially goes to James Lewis from Bamfords Auctioneers and Valuers, and the children of Saint Anselm’s School in Rowsley, Derbyshire. In June 2019, Bamfords Auctioneers and Valuers collaborated with Saint Anselm’s School to fundraise in support of the Born Free Foundation and other wildlife NGOs. According to the Guinness World Records, the auction went on for a total of 24 hours and 6 minutes. 

7. The Country of New Zealand Was Once Up for “Auction”

Yes, we’ve reached the downright bizarre side of auctions, although there should be an asterisk by this one, as New Zealand was technically never at risk of being sold. In 2006, a quirky and humorous auction on eBay captured worldwide attention when a cheeky Australian put the entire country of New Zealand up for sale, starting at $0.01 AUD. However, the lighthearted prank did not last long as eBay promptly intervened and removed the listing, citing it as a violation of their policy against selling intangible items. 

8. Who Needs Clocks When You Can Use Candles?

Candle next to an Auction hammer with a scale in the background

Who knew traditional clocks weren’t always used for timed auctions? During the 17th and 18th centuries in England, candles were lit to measure the duration of an auction, introducing an element of unpredictability into the bidding process. The auction ended when the candle flame flickered out, which could happen at any moment, making it impossible for bidders to precisely time their final bids. The highest bid at the moment the candle went out was declared the winner. Who knows, maybe this form of timing an auction will one day make a grand comeback? 

9. Find An Old Royal Wedding Item Up for Auction? Piece of Cake.

Queen's wedding cake sale

In a fascinating blend of history and novelty, a slice of Queen Elizabeth II's 1947 wedding cake fetched an impressive £500 at auction. This remarkable event took place many decades after the original wedding, demonstrating the enduring appeal of royal memorabilia. The wedding cake, a magnificent creation, stood at nine feet tall and was dubbed "The 10,000-Mile Cake" because ingredients were sourced from across the Commonwealth. Remarkably, the cake was still considered edible, though it’s unlikely the buyer intended to consume this unique piece of history.

10. The Violin Which Survived the Titanic Disaster

The violin That Survived the Titanic

The story of the violin recovered after the Titanic sank is a poignant and remarkable tale that intertwines music, history, and tragedy, but did you know that it was auctioned here in the UK? The violin belonged to Wallace Hartley, the Titanic's bandleader who famously continued to play with his fellow musicians as the ship went down, in an effort to calm the passengers. In 2013, the violin was put up for auction by Henry Aldridge & Son, a British auction house known for its expertise in Titanic memorabilia, and sold for an astounding £900,000 following extensive testing and verification, including forensic analysis and historical research to confirm its authenticity. 

Are You Looking to Sell Interesting Items at Auction? 

At Cullens of Surrey, we’re proud to auction a large range of collectable toys, games, memorabilia and more. If you’re looking for expert valuations, or have items to sell at auction, please get in contact with us today. 

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