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Edition #5
Growth and Power
Anastasiia Tkachenko
Edited by Laurine Heerema

Growth and Power: The history of auction houses

To begin with, I would like to explain in simple terms what trade is, in order to discuss the history of auction houses in the context of art business and the commercial world as a whole. It is pretty easy to see the parallels between modern-day understandings of sales in a business, as any trade has two fundamental aspects: buying and selling. Furthermore, trade can be identified as a voluntary exchange of services and/or physical belongings. Due to the fact that the art business is part of the commercial world and is often run not only by local auction houses, but even by large corporations, such as Sotheby’s, Christie’s and Cambi Auction House, it is also based on the grounds of general sales.


The way the general public sees how modern sales function, we can be thankful for trade, as this phenomenon was already created back in ancient times. If we analyse the development of trade, we can see that it has been present since the existence of humankind. A very well-known example of trading in ancient times is the exchange of belongings such as clothing, food, and different types of grains, as at the time any form of money we use today had not been invented yet. The most privileged class, such as nobility, aristocracy and royalty, from what we nowadays call the modern EU states, had always had access to their treasuries and did need to be part of the trade themselves. Given their financial capabilities, they had an opportunity to buy the pieces, which were considered outstandingly unique and rare at the time, such being jewellery, furniture, paintings, any forms of visual arts and decorative elements for their private houses. Contrastingly, the general public and anyone of a lower social background didn’t have any access to them at all, as these belongings were kept as private property pieces only. Without a doubt, this tendency has clearly changed throughout the course of history and the general public has gained an opportunity to observe them. One of the first most vivid examples in history, when we become witnesses of this shift, can already be considered the period of the Middle Ages. The most famous family of an aristocratic background who decided to make their properties and decorative elements visible to the greater public were the Medici. Not only were they the most outstanding philanthropists, but by using modern-day business terms, they could even be considered to a certain extent to have been art investors of their time: their properties and art pieces were not used for their own benefit only, but were made accessible to people from any social background for free, which was a huge rarity for the fifteenth century when Lorenzo il Magnifico himself was in power.


Even though the traditions of access to the arts have changed with time, the definition of valuable belongings, in material, historical and sentimental aspects, has remained the same, and nowadays, the general public has access to them, but not only in museums. There are separate institutions in the art world which allow one not only to see, but to acquire something of great quality, with an unspeakable history behind it. In the majority of cases,  these pieces are irreproducible and can be kept not only for personal pleasure, but even as a form of investment. 

Such institutions are auction houses and adverse to ancient times, when trade was the field carried out by the lower social class groups only (what I have briefly mentioned above), nowadays, it has become a luxurious business run by the upper class, amongst whom the most influential figures are art business owners and/or collectors. In this article, I intend to present the history of auction houses, to show their development and to explain why these institutions are the representation of strength in the art business.


The history of auction houses’ dates back to 1674, when the first one was established in Stockholm by Baron Claes Rålamb. Interestingly, in the United Kingdom, the first auction house was created only 195 years later, and “by the end of the eighteenth century, auctions of artworks and chattels often took place in taverns and coffeehouses”. As it has been since 500 BC, when according to the historians of ancient history and religious studies, the first ever mention of the process of an auction appeared in Babylon. Nonetheless, the legal definition of the auction itself always remains the same, no matter what period of history we are to look at. In the legislative context, the auction’s main purpose is “a public sale of the property to the highest bidder” and to “obtain the best financial returns for the owner of the property and to allow free and fair competition among bidders”.


Having established what the process of the auction itself is, and how the auction houses were born, I would like to give some particular attention to the most famous and well-established auction houses worldwide, known as Sotheby’s and Christie’s. The former is one of the most renowned in the world, as it was created back in 1744 by Sir Samuel Baker, and it still holds not only such a monumental reputation behind its name due to the historical events, but remains a pioneer among the giants in the world of art business. Along with Christie’s, Sotheby’s occupies up to 90% of the market for auction sales of antiques and art objects. Captivatingly, Sotheby’s was initially a members’ club, where only the aristocracy had an opportunity to be hired. Nowadays, the headquarters of Sotheby’s is no longer based in London, but is in New York, as it was opened there in 1955. After 1955, the opening of branches of this auction house around the world followed in such cities as Paris, Los Angeles, Zurich, Toronto, Melbourne, Munich, Edinburgh, Johannesburg, Houston and Florence. The aforementioned auction house Christie’s is a real leader in the modern art-business, including visual arts, antique furniture, jewellery and other forms of luxurious arts. This is proven by the fact that its total revenue in 2017 alone amounted to $6.6 billion, which undeniably surpassed Sotheby's revenue in that given year. However, it cannot be emphasized enough that being the main competitor to Sotheby’s, the latter auction house still has managed to outperform the figures given above in 2021, by reaching the peak of the annual turnover with the number of $7.3 billion. Thus, this clearly proves that these role models of auction houses have not only managed to keep up their reputation in terms of historical value, but also to demonstrate the clear development of their work throughout the centuries, up to modern-day society’s demands.

But to understand these auction houses' full evolution, we also need to look at how their progress was forged geographically. As it has been mentioned before, the first auction house was established in Stockholm, followed by the opening of two other ones elsewhere in Sweden. Here we can all become witnesses of the fact that the first expansion of the art business institutions happened from this Scandinavian country towards the UK. When one is to follow and to judge the history and development of auction houses through Sotheby’s exclusively, one can also tell that the following country to adopt this manner of luxury trading was the US. Moreover, amongst the numerous countries where the branches were open, it is very easy to find that Italy stands out a lot, due to the amount of affiliate auction houses that were opened there, and it is vital to pay attention to the development of these institutions in this particular state. 


Modern-day Italy is often seen by both the customers of the art business and the art dealers themselves, as one of the countries that represents the beauty of art best, due to the fact that the Italian Peninsula is the motherland of many blue chip artists of all the different styles and historical periods: from Leonardo da Vinci to Lucio Fontana. Taking this into consideration, even though Italy has managed to adapt to this quite innovative approach to selling art, as it was for the seventeenth to eighteenth centuries, it is surprising to see that the first originally Italian auction house was only opened in 1998. Cambi Auction House was indeed founded in the twentieth century in Genoa, however, it is highly important to underline that Cambi, according to their own record, is confirmed to be “the first auction house [in Italy] with a turnover of over 35 million euros”. Nowadays, Cambi presents three different fields, such as luxury, modern and ancient, despite initially specialising in only the latter. As is stated by Cambi themselves, “over the years, alongside the consolidation of Ancient Art proposals, great attention has been given to the Modern Art and Design, Oriental Art, Jewelry, Watches, Wines departments' development”. Likewise, it is crucial to understand that this is the auction house which became “the point of reference in the country for the art and collecting market”. I would like to bring your attention to the fact that Cambi Auction House has also developed from a single, so-called “local” auction house in Genova back in 1998 to a successful art-business establishment with offices in Rome, Turin, Venice, as well as with its headquarters opened in the financial capital of Italy, in Milan. These factors only highlight once again the incredible progress Cambi has made in the context of its personal development as a separate business structure and the adaptation of an Italian historical establishment that very vividly represents its motherland on the level of international trade.


In concluding this article, I would like to re-emphasize the fact that auction houses are themselves highly representative of power and strength for various reasons. It is difficult not to ignore the clear impact that auction houses have had on global economics since their establishment, due to constant development and expansion. This can be judged from the figures of both income and sales that have a proven record in Sotheby’s, Christie's and Cambi. Moreover, it is clear that apart from the importance that auction houses bring from a financial aspect, they also act as historical landmarks. Auction houses also represent how this kind of business has progressed from simple trading and non-professionally organised auctions into a well-established form of corporate business as a whole. Auction houses such as Christie’s, Sotheby’s and Cambi can paradoxically be seen as antiquities in the world of art business themselves: they have managed to preserve their countries’ traditions in art business (in terms of areas of art that they represent, as well as based on the cultures of their countries of origin). Likewise, they embody their own manner of carrying business as separate institutions, being in constant competition with each other and therefore also developing art business as a whole, which is very rare for a modern, corporative world. Thus, it can be concluded that auction houses constitute the representation of strength and power not only of the countries where they have originated from, but likewise the field of this business as a whole.


1. According to the article of Square “The History of the Trade and Barter System” the first time one comes across such concept as the bartering system is dated back in 6000BC

2.“The Brief History of Auctions” by Lacy Scott& Knight,


4 Ibid

5. “The Law of Auctions” by Law Offices of Stimmel, Stimmel & Roeser

6. “The History of Sotheby’s Auction House”,

7. “Russian and Ukrainian Artists of The World Scale At The Auction Christie’s in London”,

8. “Christie’s sales in 2017 total £5.1 billion/$ 6.6 billion”, 

9. “Historic $7.3 billion turnover for the auction house”,

10. The ones who have a confirmed, long-lasting history of being sold in auction houses at a great value

11. History,Cambi,

12. Ibid

13. Ibid

14. Ibid

15. Ibid
















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