Fri Aug 23, 2002

How to Run an Auction (in 1660)

When I was on holidays in Washington last month I bought the first volume of The Diary of Samuel Pepys at the Colophon bookstore in Fairhaven. Pepys’ diary is one of those “in the library of every civilized blah blah blah” books. Normally, I’m the worst kind of consumer of those. I feel morally obliged to buy them but then don’t open them afterwards. Knowing this, I only bought volume one. But now that I’m getting to the end of November 1660, I wish I’d bought the other ten. Pepys is a terrific read. Here’s an entry I read last night, from November 6, 1660, which, serendipitously, bears on this post about auctions.

From thence Mr Creed and I to Wilkinsons and dined together; and in great haste thence to our office, where we met all commonly, for the sale of two ships by an inch of candle (the first time that ever I saw any of this kind) … I observed how they do invite one another and at last how they all do cry; and we have much to do to tell who did cry last. The ships were the Indian sold for 1300l [pounds], and the Halfe Moon sold for 830l.

A footnote by the editors explains:

This was the usual method of auction-sale. A section of wax candle an inch in length was lit for each lot, and the successful bidder was the one who shouted immediately before the candle went out.

They add that Pepys has more details on September 3rd 1662. So it’s off to Amazon to buy some more volumes. (I wonder if this method of auctioning goods is related to the phrase “burning the candle at both ends”?)