The History of Art Auctions: From Origins to the Present

Art auctions have a long and storied history, evolving from simple transactions to complex and highly publicized events. This journey has mirrored the broader changes in art markets and collecting, reflecting shifts in cultural values, economic conditions, and technological advancements. Here, we explore the history of art auctions from their inception to 2022.

Early Beginnings

The concept of auctioning art can be traced back to ancient civilizations. In ancient Rome, auctions were a common method of selling goods, including art. The Roman practice, known as "sub hasta," involved public auctions conducted under the supervision of a magistrate, often with a spear (hasta) symbolizing the sale. These early auctions were not solely focused on art but included various items such as slaves, property, and other goods.

The Middle Ages and Renaissance

During the Middle Ages, the auctioning of art became less common as feudal systems dominated and the Church controlled much of the artistic output. However, the Renaissance period (14th to 17th centuries) marked a revival in art and culture, and with it, the art market began to flourish again. While formal auctions were still rare, artworks were increasingly sold and exchanged among the wealthy and powerful.

The Emergence of Modern Art Auctions

The first recorded auction house, Stockholm Auction House (Stockholms Auktionsverk), was established in 1674 in Sweden, primarily dealing with art and antiques. However, the most significant development came in the 18th century with the founding of two of the most famous auction houses: Sotheby's and Christie's.

  1. Sotheby's: Established in 1744 in London by Samuel Baker, Sotheby's initially focused on rare books but gradually expanded to include art and other valuables. It quickly gained a reputation for handling high-quality collections and rare items.

  2. Christie's: Founded in 1766 by James Christie, Christie's began as an auction house dealing with a wide range of items, including art. Christie's quickly became known for its expertise in art and antiques, hosting sales that attracted the elite and wealthy collectors.

19th and 20th Centuries: Growth and Globalization

The 19th century saw a significant expansion in the art market, driven by the rise of the bourgeoisie and increased wealth among industrialists and entrepreneurs. This period marked the beginning of art collecting as a popular and prestigious activity among the wealthy, and auctions became a primary method for acquiring art.

In the 20th century, art auctions expanded globally, with Sotheby's and Christie's opening offices in major cities around the world. The post-World War II era, in particular, saw a booming art market, with modern and contemporary art becoming highly sought after. The 1950s and 1960s witnessed record-breaking sales and the emergence of new auction houses, such as Phillips, which further diversified the market.

The Late 20th and Early 21st Centuries: Technological Advancements and Record Sales

The advent of the internet in the late 20th century revolutionized the art auction industry. Online bidding platforms allowed auction houses to reach a global audience, making it easier for collectors worldwide to participate in auctions. Sotheby's and Christie's both launched online platforms in the early 2000s, significantly expanding their reach.

The late 20th and early 21st centuries also saw a surge in record-breaking sales. Notable examples include:

  • "The Scream" by Edvard Munch: Sold for $119.9 million at Sotheby's in 2012.
  • "Salvator Mundi" by Leonardo da Vinci: Sold for a staggering $450.3 million at Christie's in 2017, setting the record for the most expensive artwork ever sold at auction.

The Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 and 2021 had a profound impact on the art auction industry. Traditional in-person auctions were largely suspended, and auction houses quickly adapted by enhancing their online platforms and holding virtual auctions. This shift accelerated the digital transformation of the industry, with online sales reaching new heights. Despite the challenges, the art market proved resilient, with significant sales continuing to occur online.

2022 and Beyond

By 2022, the art auction market had largely recovered from the disruptions caused by the pandemic. Hybrid auctions, combining in-person and online elements, became the norm. Technological innovations such as blockchain and NFTs (non-fungible tokens) began to influence the market, offering new ways to buy, sell, and authenticate art.

The focus on diversity and inclusion also became more pronounced, with auction houses increasingly spotlighting works by underrepresented artists, including women and artists of color. This shift reflects broader societal changes and a growing recognition of the importance of diverse voices in the art world.


The history of art auctions is a testament to the evolving nature of art markets and collecting practices. From ancient Rome to the digital age, art auctions have adapted to changing economic conditions, technological advancements, and cultural shifts. As we look to the future, it is clear that art auctions will continue to play a crucial role in the global art market, reflecting and shaping the tastes and values of collectors worldwide.

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