On the face of it, auctions are relatively straightforward: bids are made, the hammer falls and a transaction is completed. Simple. But auctions have been around for centuries, and in that time the industry has been anything but dull. In fact, there have been some pretty spectacular sales, successes and controversies to pick through. Not only that but we have also seen new auction formats and models develop and thrive.
From shredded paintings to countries under the hammer, here are some of the most incredible, exciting and fun facts about auctions.
Auctions date back as far as 500 BC
Auctions have been part of society millennia – at least 2,523 years to be more specific. Greek historian Herodotus documented accounts of auctions taking place in Babylon, which was once the largest city in the world. The Babylonian empire dissolved in time, becoming modern day Iran, so we can only imagine what trinkets and treasures may have gone under the gavel back when civilization was quite different.
Da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi is the most expensive (and controversial) painting ever auctioned
Produced in the 1500s, Leonardo Da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi (“Saviour of the World”) famously sold in 2017 for $450.3 million. This remains the highest fee ever paid for a work of art at auction at time of writing. However, the attention this garnered caused the painting to come under intense scrutiny, with many highlighting its poor condition, questionable quality and unverified history.
The painting had previously sold in 2005 in New Orleans, and had to be restored extensively due to having been overpainted and inadequately restored in the past. This led some to question how much of the current painting was actually created by Da Vinci’s hand.
Debates surrounding the painting still continue, as it has not been seen publicly since it was sold. It’s current whereabouts are unknown, though it is thought to have been purchased by the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman.
The longest ever single lot sale lasted 75+ minutes and included over 100 bids
In October 2020, a 700 year-old work by renowned Yuan-dynasty master painter Ren Renfa sold for the equivalent of US$306.6 million. The extraordinary painted scroll, titled Five Drunken Princes Returning on Horseback, marks the longest bidding war in auction history.
The bidding itself last for more than 75 minutes and included over 100 bids. Competition was fierce for this masterpiece of Asian painting, and to date it remains to most valuable work sold at auction in Asia.
A man once tried to auction off the entire country of New Zealand
Friendly rivalry between Australia and New Zealand is nothing new. But it reached a new level in 2006 when one Australian man listed the entire country of New Zealand for sale, with a starting bid of one cent. Bidding eventually reached $1,300 – a steal for such a picturesque country – but the auction was removed for violating eBay’s terms and conditions before any sale could be finalised.
The oldest auction house can be found in Stockholm
Founded in 1674 by Baron Claes Rålamb, Stockholms Auktionsverk (Swedish for “Stockholm’s Auction House”) is the oldest auction house in the world. In its long lifetime, the site has been used by esteemed guests like Sweden’s King Charles XI – who earned 900 silver coins for some hunting rifles – and King Gustav III. Gustav purchased Rembrandt’s Kitchen Maid, while playwright August Strindberg purchased a number of books during his visit to Stockholms Auktionsverk.
Banksy set records with his famous shredded painting
You may remember the infamous footage of Banksy’s Love is in the Bin back in 2021. Seconds after the hammer fell at Sotheby’s in London, the painting of Girl with Balloon sank into a hidden shredder located in the bottom of the ornate Victorian frame, and was irreparably destroyed.
Despite this, the piece still sold for an eye-watering £18,582,000. This broke records as the highest ever price for a street artist’s work, while also selling for many times its guide price. It also raised a lot of questions about elitism and commercialisation in art.
Melting candles were once used to time auctions
Long before electricity, auctions in England saw auctioneers and bidders gather in a dark room with a single candle pinned to the wall. The auction would commence when the candle was lit, and would end the moment the candle melted around the pin and fell to the ground. At this point, the final bidder would be declared the winner.
Needless to say, this created an urgent and rather chaotic atmosphere for the bidding process. It also explains the origins of the term ‘flaming out’, where bidders are deemed to bid too high too early.
Auction houses have moved with the times
Although many of the world’s most famous auction houses are steeped in history and tradition, they have all had to adapt to changes as their sales move increasingly online. At Artisio, we are working closely with auction businesses around the globe to provide them with the tools to enable this transition and deliver the technical environment for growth.
From fully integrated inventory and logistics management to live and timed online auction streaming, online payment processing and sophisticated 3rd party integrations, Artisio’s front-to-back auction management software solution is at the cutting edge this intriguing industry.
Find out more about Artisio AMS today by booking a demo