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May 14, 2024 53 mins

We've all heard of auction houses. Nowadays, these are often best-known as specialized institutions catering to international institutions and a small percentage of the obscenely wealthy -- but how did they get started? In today's episode, Ben, Noel and Max dive into the ridiculous (and at times disturbing) history of auction houses.

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Episode Transcript

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Speaker 1 (00:00):
Ridiculous History is a production of iHeartRadio. Welcome back to

the show, Ridiculous Historians. Thank you, as always so much
for tuning in, Going once, going twice sold. That's our
super producer, mister Max Williams.

Speaker 2 (00:36):
Hey, Max Williams ones, I'm sorry, boy man, those felt
those folks, those auctioneerss they they've got they they've got
the gift a gap.

Speaker 1 (00:46):
You know, I'm a I'm a hip hop guy, so
I study the auctioneer.

Speaker 3 (00:50):
There's a cadence to it.

Speaker 1 (00:51):
Ill you we are also uh we are Ben Poland
and mister Noel Brown and an early episode previously on
Ridiculous History, we decided on the fly to engage in
our longgoing fascination about a thing called auction houses.

Speaker 3 (01:12):
Do we all know?

Speaker 1 (01:13):
We all know it an auction houses?

Speaker 3 (01:14):

Speaker 2 (01:16):
Yeah? I mean, you know, like Sodabi's and Christie's and
I guess there's more niche ones, but those are the
ones that have I guess the longest sort of history.
But I got to ask you guys before we jump
more into the top. Have either of y'all ever been
to an auction?

Speaker 3 (01:31):
Yes? I honestly have not.

Speaker 2 (01:33):
Okay, well, then Max you're out of this one, Ben,
What kind of auction did you go to?

Speaker 1 (01:38):
H I've been to several. I've been to some art
auctions or what you would also antiquity auctions you'd call it.
And car auctions there are a lot of There are
a lot of car auctions around every year, even every
month and summer bigger than others. But they're a great
way to get a deal. However, especially in those auctions

NOL caveats in tour the buyer must be.

Speaker 3 (02:05):
Ware well, yes, as is y'all.

Speaker 2 (02:08):
And also you never know whose car you're buying exactly.
The providence of the of the item might be a
little obscure. But maybe I'm also thinking of, like you know,
buying things at auction on courthouse steps like allys gone
into foreclosure.

Speaker 3 (02:22):
That's the type of auction as we pay for.

Speaker 1 (02:24):
A while, was the most common auction situation for a
lot of people, right like why should I pay ten
dollars for something if I could maybe pay seven or
twenty five?

Speaker 2 (02:35):
And unfortunately eBay with everyone kind of knowing how to
use the internet and kind of knowing how much things
are going for, very hard to get those deals. You
used to be able to get and that's sort of
the point of an auction in a way, is to
be a part of the like the economics of it all,
whether it be driving the price up or whether it's
kind of figuring out what the market will allow. And

sometimes that market is just a room of very wealthy people,
and that is what the market will sustain. I've been
to one auction in my life and it was back
in my days as a reporter in Augusta, Georgia for
public radio. And we have this thing called the Futurity,
which is a big horse show, and I think there's
events that kind of rodeo type events that go into

some show aspects, but a big part of it is
the buying and selling of fancy horses, and that doesn't
always happen with the fully formed horse.

Speaker 3 (03:25):
The sperm.

Speaker 2 (03:25):
Right, I went to a horse sperm auction, big business.
I haven't been back. I'm doing a move right now
that I'm not loving, but well I'm trying to.

Speaker 4 (03:34):
I think it's season six of Rick and Morty or
Morty's at his mom, Beth's job, and she's a vet
and there is this machine there that is designed to
get this thing from.

Speaker 1 (03:48):
Horse to automate the process of extracting.

Speaker 3 (03:52):
And Mary takes a lot of curiosity in the machine.

Speaker 1 (03:55):
Sure. Yeah, we've all been kids around a vacuum cleaner.

Speaker 3 (03:59):
You get it.

Speaker 1 (04:00):
The uh but Noel, tell us about this. Was it
a surprising thing to you that such a price point
would be put on, like thoroughbred champion reproductive material.

Speaker 3 (04:11):
If I'm not mistaken.

Speaker 2 (04:12):
It got up into the thousands, and I believe there
were some that were even in the tens of thousands. Yeah, real,
you know, purebreads or whatever, thoroughbreds rather, But no, I
was it was of course, the little child in me
was giggling the whole time. And they really these types
of auctioneers do use that very quick old timy You

gotta pay attention or else you'll miss it, kind of
like uh, you know, very quick hit cadence of that,
almost like you said, Ben, like almost.

Speaker 3 (04:41):
Like a hip hop delivery.

Speaker 2 (04:43):
It's auctions are weird and they have obviously anyone thinking
about history and auctions will remember the very difficult and
nasty and problematic roots of auction.

Speaker 1 (05:02):
Yeah, so let's go to the history of auctions and
auction houses from art Decks, which is a great resource
we're going to lean on here. It goes back into
five hundred BCE, before the Common era. A Greek historian,
probably most famous for being in Assassin's Creed Odyssey, named Herodotus.

He also wrote a book called Histories. He is one
of the first to mention what we call the antecedent
of the auction procedure. And it was used in slavery
basically to auction off women in the Empire Babylon for marriage.

Speaker 2 (05:43):
And this isn't you know, I mean, you can tell
by just the fact that these are being treated as
you know, property. This was very much marriage as property
type arrangements.

Speaker 3 (05:55):
You know, with very little no, not very little.

Speaker 2 (05:58):
Let's just go ahead and say zero agency on the
part of the person being auction sure.

Speaker 1 (06:04):
And this was also surprised just like a cherry on
top of the evil Sunday. Here, the auctioneer was the
subjective arbiter of price. So the auctioneer would check out
the person that they were putting up as an object
for bidding and.

Speaker 3 (06:23):
Sake sure, looking at teeth, yeah, like a horse, you
know what.

Speaker 1 (06:26):
I mean, asking age, et cetera, and would judge on
what the auctioneer saw as their attractiveness. Yes, the auctioneer
was usually a dude, and then also determine the order
in which these people would be put up for bid.
And the only way this was normalized this was to

a degree institutionalized. If you were doing an arranged marriage,
then the winning bid is let's think of that kind
of as the dowry. So a guy would say, a
father would sell his child to another man and conspire
to arrive at a certain price. And often, if we

are to believe Herodotus here, often the price was pre
arranged with the chance that someone would outbid. And you
know less we cast these guys entirely as villains, which
they kind of were. There was a return policy. Oh good, Yeah,

but it wasn't for the woman. Is the thing that
people skip over in the history of the research. I
figured it was for if the dude was unhappy. And
of course the Romans had a similar arrangement. From that
piece that I mentioned history of auctions and auction houses
the Roman Empires, auctions used to dispose of property and
products were known as the atrium auctionarium. Roman troops also

employed the approach to distribute the spoils of war, which
would have suited their triumphant sentiments. Nothing even individual was
off limits. Yeah, slaves of course seized from their enemies.
And then of course a lot of this money I
believe didn't go to the individual soldiers. This was more
of a booster kind of effort, right to put money

back into future conquest, state supported war machine. You can
see things like that in the modern day, which we'll
talk about the future, I imagine. But you could also
if you were in debt, because our concept of bankruptcy
law works very differently here in twenty twenty four in
the US, if you were in debt as a Roman,

and you were one of the relatively small portion of
the population that qualified as a citizen, you could avoid slavery,
which was like the end result of bankruptcy. You could
avoid that by selling your assets in the atrium auctionarium.
And the word since we're all etymology nerds here, the

word auction derives from this point in time, derives from
the Latin word octus, which means increasing, so you can
always the thing is usually the person who is placing
their possession, their property up forbid. The auction is kind

of on their side because humans will tend to compete.
We'll see we see shadows of this in the modern
day auctions, which are usually stuff like sothabes, right, very
very rare items, historical items of note, or perhaps most
successfully for the auction houses, I would posit they make

the most money off of things that are one of
a kind but of interest to very few well moneyed people,
like celebrity items and so.

Speaker 2 (09:52):
Yeah, as we were talking about earlier, where it's like
it's this microcosm of economics where the whole driver of
it is who who's in the room, you know, and
who's being sent to bid on this very bespoke item,
and that is what determines kind of like the jockeying
for a for a price, and then one's a thing
is paid for a certain price is paid for a thing.

Speaker 3 (10:14):
That then kind of becomes the value of the thing.

Speaker 2 (10:16):
Right, Yes, it's an interesting way of assigning value to
things that are quote unquote priceless.

Speaker 3 (10:22):

Speaker 1 (10:22):
Oh yeah, look into the recent Saudi Arabian auction and purchases,
and also check out our earlier episode on stuff they
Don't want you to know about Fine art as a
beautiful avenue for money laundry. If you're in you know,
I can't give you, I can't give you sixty million
dollars whatever directly. However you can, you know, have your

kid draw something and put that up for auction. I'll
pay sixty million for that. And we're square because we're
not criminals. We just like fine art.

Speaker 3 (10:54):
That's right.

Speaker 2 (10:54):
We are what's the word ben patrons, that's right, or
the arts. And as you can imagine, there are some
interesting terms that maybe haven't stuck around, but the magister
or master auctionarium was back in the Roman days, a
licensed auctioneer. There were procedures involved, like to get things started,

you would you know, these would often be done in
like a town square, a public gathering place. The majister
auctionarium would drive a spear into the ground, letting folks
know it was time to begin. And then the seller
is known as the dominance, which makes sense.

Speaker 3 (11:33):
That's a person kind of with the upper.

Speaker 1 (11:34):
Hands though because a lot of these folks, again were
in debt.

Speaker 2 (11:38):
That's a good point, man, that's a good point. Then
we had the argentarius, who is the person who organized
the auction, and then there was an prey co who
was sort of the promoter, right like almost like because
these are in a way, you know, auctions are kind
of fun. It's like watching a horse race or something.
You know, you want to see who quote unquote wins

the art.

Speaker 1 (12:01):
So let's think of the Argentarius as sort of the producer,
and the preco is sort of the marketing, but also
the person who conducts the auction itself. And at this
time they didn't have the sort of can't that we
recognize today, which is called the auction chant, the cry yeah,

that sort of stuff, right, that's not a thing yet
about whatever they did was still interesting in its own right.

Speaker 2 (12:29):
I don't know that we have exact obviously there were
no recordings of it, but do we have any sense
of how these were carried out, like if it was
just a little bit more maybe by signals.

Speaker 1 (12:39):
Or probably a town hall vibe, you know, that makes
sense as far as the etymology. One last thing we
should mention is the name of the buyer, Emptour, which
leads us to the phrase caveat Emptour, buy the tire. Yeah.
I like to say that just a casual speech, you

know what it's.

Speaker 2 (13:01):
Of these terms, that's probably the most recognizable today and
it's used you know, if you are buying something or auctioning.
Paying for something an auction usually that that is sort
of implied that like you're you get what you get.
And there are situations where you are bidding on something
with the understanding that it is in fact entirely authentic.

There will be certificates of authenticity. There will be again
like with a horse, where you check out the teeth
and you've got someone out there showing you their giant whatever.
You know, they're breeding equipments. Yeah, ohs exactly, So you
know you you I don't know that if you if
you bought something like that at auction and then it
was a lemon, surely you would have some recourse if

it was like part of the understanding that you were
buying something that was you know, functional.

Speaker 3 (13:49):
But there are situations where when you.

Speaker 2 (13:50):
Have as is in the in the in the you know,
the description of the item that is when caveat emptur
surely applies absolute.

Speaker 1 (14:00):
And we also see the precedent from what we would
call a state sales today.

Speaker 3 (14:05):
Did I tell you.

Speaker 1 (14:06):
Guys, one of my friends took me to an estate
sale recently to several we made a.

Speaker 3 (14:11):
Day of it.

Speaker 2 (14:11):
I know people that make a it's they make their
living doing that, you know, and that's honestly a place
where you can get the deals. Yes, because a lot
of times people are i would maybe not under duress,
but they're they're trying to get rid of some stuff.

Speaker 3 (14:24):
They don't want to prolong this.

Speaker 2 (14:27):
So you're more likely to get a deal and in
a state sale than at an actual auction.

Speaker 3 (14:31):
Where everything's kind of understood exactly.

Speaker 1 (14:33):
It's a fascinating anthropological investigation. You know, you learn about
the dead person kind of the same way you learn
about the life of a tree through dendo crytology, which
is like reading the rings of what they were interested in.
But also, arguably it could be a bit coolish thing
is it's not a new practice. We know that for
like twelve hundred years. Fast forward auctions still are a thing.

They're a very practical way to redistribute resources and property,
and they were often used to monetize the possessions of
those who had recently passed on, as r. Pal Doyle says,
as early as the seventh century Common Era, when a
monk died, what possessions they had were sold at auction,

and then if you fast forward to the thirteenth century
King Henry the seventh would issue these royal licenses to auctioneers,
so you could say, I'm legit, you can trust me.
I came by this dead person's stuff through legal means.

Speaker 3 (15:37):
That's a good point, ben.

Speaker 2 (15:38):
It is sort of a way of absolving, you know,
a situation that might be considered theft, or it might
be considered problematic, sort of pillaging of someone's earthly possessions.

Speaker 3 (15:53):
You know, it's a bit of a loophole. Feel for
this way, right, nol Is.

Speaker 1 (15:58):
It not kind of a loophole? Yeah, it's sort of
like tagging bureaucratic base.

Speaker 3 (16:03):
I think that's right.

Speaker 2 (16:05):
And then in fifteen fifty six, the French government had
what they called bailiff auctioneers, and they would sell items
for the government from folks who died in battle perhaps
or were executed. So again they're selling this stuff. They're
making money back for the Crown off of people who
were potentially killed.

Speaker 3 (16:28):
Under suspicious and or unfair circumstances. I mean, let's be honest.

Speaker 2 (16:33):
You know a lot of times these were political dissidents,
you know, who were perhaps pillaried in that way and
maybe had actually not done anything wrong, per se but
we're just enemies of the state. And then this is
a great quote unquote legal way of taking all of
their stuff and selling it to make money.

Speaker 1 (16:49):
Kill a couple of Cathers, kill a couple other religious heretics,
you know, make some coin on the other side.

Speaker 4 (16:56):
This reminds me.

Speaker 3 (16:57):
I don't know why.

Speaker 4 (16:58):
It reminded me of this guy in particular, but remember
but signedist we did who just kept on getting in
trouble for like yelling about like how we didn't think
the Holy Trinity was right.

Speaker 3 (17:08):
Oh yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, I don't know.

Speaker 4 (17:10):
Just this section r here remind me of that guy,
because that guy was like, man, he just couldn't let
it go.

Speaker 1 (17:15):
We also echoes of this in the ongoing debate, at
least in the West, about who should profit from the
sale of serial killer paraphernalia.

Speaker 2 (17:27):
Oh it's a really good point, Ben, check out the
episode on that subject and stuff. They don't want you
to know, the other show that Ben and I do
with our buddy Matt Frederick.

Speaker 3 (17:36):
But English auctioneers.

Speaker 1 (17:39):
All right, now, we're getting to like modern.

Speaker 3 (17:41):
Kind of so yeah.

Speaker 2 (17:42):
Sixteen seventy four was the first recorded auction of a
painting in England and it took place at the Somerset House.

Speaker 3 (17:52):
Then in the late sixteen hundreds a lot of rare books.

Speaker 2 (17:56):
Were being auctions in London as well, and then you
started to see real estate, like we're talking about sort
of things that might have been seized being auctioned in England.
That was announced officially in the newspaper with a notice
in the London Evening Post on March eighth, seventeen thirty nine.

Speaker 3 (18:17):
This also is taking place elsewhere in Europe, right.

Speaker 1 (18:20):
Yeah, yeah, there is an interesting i would say cross
wave or differing interpretation of auctions in Holland around the
same time. In Holland, the bidding system was called.

Speaker 3 (18:33):
Mine, that's mine, that's.

Speaker 1 (18:34):
Mine, did mine, did tips, and they would start at
a pre deter so like a lot of auctions have
a minimum bid now, but these guys would start at
the highest optimal bid and if someone said yes, great,
If no one spoke up, they would keep dropping the
price until someone said yes, which is I think a

little more reasonable for those of us who are not
crazy aristocrats.

Speaker 3 (19:02):

Speaker 1 (19:03):
Well, these are the bones of the modern precedent. But
it wasn't until around the seventeenth century that today's some
of today's most popular auctions, art auctions are creating this
kind of collector base for the emergent middle class of Flanders,
Holland and some i would say, some parts of Italy

where there's already flourishing international trade and discourse. Oh a,
newspapers start advertising auctions at this point.

Speaker 3 (19:36):
Yeah, yeah.

Speaker 2 (19:37):
That English real estate auction I think was one of
the first public notices that we were saying.

Speaker 3 (19:42):
So, of course, as.

Speaker 2 (19:43):
As you pointed out in Guys, we've already described, there's
some serious evolution of the processes from back with the
Greeks and the Romans to relatively modern day.

Speaker 1 (19:53):
Also, as we mentioned we talked about this off air,
there are some incredibly unclean things about auctions. The shadows
of the Babylonian trafficking, which is really what we call
it today, continued well into the modern era with things
like slave auctions.

Speaker 2 (20:15):
That's right, Yeah, And I think when we were talking
about the troubled history of auctions, more so than the Babylonians,
the mind tends to jump to auctioning of human beings
for the purposes of conducting you know, backbreaking labor for
zero money aka slavery, and of course that is thank god,
no longer legal. Still to your point, though, ben was

something that was much more modern than a lot of
people would like to like to accept. And of course
there are still snippets and pieces of attitudes associated with
that time that have not.

Speaker 3 (20:53):
Entirely gone away.

Speaker 1 (20:54):
The consequences remain. Yeah, for anybody who wants to learn
more about that, look into events like the Great slave
Auction of Savannah, Georgia, which occurred in March of eighteen
fifty nine, or look into the even larger mass auction

of enslaved people in Charleston, South Carolina. I mean, history
is always closer than we like to think it is
in the rear view mirror. Obviously, if you go to
the fancy auction houses today, they are not going to
be selling people. However, there are still rumors, and I

would argue proven instances of human beings being auctioned, sometimes
in sex trafficking cases, sometimes still in slavery cases, in
particularly in the Middle Middle Eastern sphere, parts of Eurasia
and on parts of the African continent. So this is

a dangerous thing. But to be clear, Sotha Bees and
Christie's the big fancy cravat wearing auction houses.

Speaker 2 (22:08):
They have no truck with this no now. The oldest
auction house, however, was in Sweden and Stockholm was known
as the Auctions Vesque Auctions oxyon Zvek I believe love It,
which I think just kind of means auction works, and
it was founded around sixteen seventy four, I believe, and Sotherby's,

the world's second largest auction house currently started in around
seventeen forty I believe seventeen forty four, precisely. Christie's being
the number one largest auction house in the world was
founded in seventeen sixty six. So once again you have
an example of being first to market and a lot
of these legacy companies that kind of were had the

wherewithal in the resources to be the names in this
and to this day they're still the name because these
are some very tightly knit, very moneyed circles, and a
lot of the things that pass through these houses are
old and our legacy items. And there's just a good
example of you know, someone kind of like being the
first one to the table and they continue to be

the most powerful force in that world today.

Speaker 1 (23:20):
Yeah, well said, let's dive into their history. So the
story of Christie starts with a guy named James Christie.
He's born, He's a Scot by birth. He is working

as an auctioneer in the United Kingdom and he founds
the Christie's auction House on December fifth, seventeen sixty six
in Old London. This starts as a studio to connect
really successful artist visual artists with very well moneyed aristocrats.

But it evolves past this into something bigger. There's what happens.
James Christine co. They handle a couple of prominent art auctions.
They sell things like Sir Robert Walpole's painting collections, They
sell them to Russians, they sell them to Catherine to
Great in seventeen seventy eight. And now all of a
sudden they have the eyes of the nobles upon them.

You know, at first you have my attention, Now you
have my interest.

Speaker 3 (24:29):
Kind of thing, boy, do you ever?

Speaker 2 (24:32):
And this was of course also like the earliest days
of kind of art as currency too in a way,
and as a very interesting form of kind of cultural exchange.

Speaker 1 (24:43):
Right, that's a really good point. And this led to
the establishment of London as a major hub of the
international art trade. When the chaos of the French Revolution occurs,
a lot of aristocrats who don't want to lose their
heads are selling off assets left and right to give

themselves a new life in a different, less guillotine forward
environment exactly.

Speaker 2 (25:12):
And following his father's death in eighteen oh three, James
Christi the second, who had a background in ancient Greek
and Italian art, he took over the business and pushed
it even more in that direction. It remained a private
company until nineteen seventy three when it went public and
then was bought by a French businessman and again massive

art collector named Francois Pinol in nineteen ninety nine, and
then backtracking a couple decades handful into the late fifties,
they moved out and branched out beyond London and had
kind of satellite locations in Rome and in Geneva, separated

by about ten years, so fifty eight you had Rome,
Geneva in nineteen sixty eight and then and only a
year later for Tokyo. So those are kind of the
main hubs now at the time, and then now they
have little various kind of you know, outlets all over
the world, including Singapore, and of course in the United States.

Speaker 1 (26:13):
And Singapore makes sense as does the United States, because
Singapore is already such a crossroads of all sorts of money, right,
all sorts of trade, some of it much of it legal.

Speaker 2 (26:27):
And if I'm not mistaken, it's either Southeby's or Christie's.
You'll sometimes, even here in Atlanta see really fancy houses
or historical houses. I guess that the for sale sign
it's being handled by one of these auction houses. So
I don't know if that's a newer development, but maybe
they just have like a real estate wing.

Speaker 4 (26:47):
I'm glad you said that, Noel, because I was sitting
over here, like I swear I've seen souther Bees on
like real estate signs. But I'm like, I must be going,
I must be going.

Speaker 3 (26:55):
It's totally that logo. It's it's that you know, it's
that company. There's no question. I'm almost positive.

Speaker 1 (26:59):
You what you guys are right. It may have been
licensed out. But also when you see a when you
see Southeby's handling a real estate sale, the implication is
that if you have to ask how much it is,
you can't afford it, and you can kind of tell
by the house. You know what I'm seeing. You know,
you don't see a Southeby's sign outside of a trailer park.

Speaker 3 (27:23):
I'm just making sure it is.

Speaker 2 (27:24):
It definitely is Southeby's Reality. It's it's connected, Yeah, it
sure is. It's the same logo.

Speaker 3 (27:30):
Maybe license everything's like over five million.

Speaker 1 (27:32):
There are a lot of There are a lot of
Southeby's homes for sale in my neighborhood, in my neck
of the woods, and I like to walk past them
during the day so that I don't get arrested for
being for being not an aristocrat looking at them. But yes, yeah,
they They also offer an interesting value proposition to the

property owner, right, which is someone will see the Southeby's logo,
you know the house is up for I would say,
not even sale, but more up for conversation, right, like
how much can you offer? And then blind box it
and only let people know whether the offer works if

they have been outbid. It's a very clever system.

Speaker 2 (28:19):
Well, just to read a tiny little snippet from the
Southeby's Reality website, I think it speaks to all this.
Only one network of agents represents the longest standing taste
maker in the world. In the spirit of innovation, an
exceptional luxury real estate company bearing Southeby's name was launched
in nineteen seventy six, and if you go to the website,
it's like here's here's today's special Piedmont, California. Fourteen point

five million dollars for just the most ostentatious but also
tasteful or best. Oh bo for sure, so glad. I'm
thanks Max for China on license. I'm saying they must
have in seventy six.

Speaker 3 (28:59):
I'm I'm digging around.

Speaker 4 (29:00):
You can get actually like I had like under three
hundred thousand, and I'm like, oh wow.

Speaker 1 (29:04):
That's not impossible because they again they licensed it out.
It's brand recognition, you know what I mean.

Speaker 2 (29:10):
That is interesting to know that they and you know
you will find it's not like Southeby's and Christie's only
auctions things in the gazillions of dollars range. I mean,
there will be like memorabilia that sure get let go
for a reasonable amount depending on you know, what your
tastes are. And a lot of times it's less about them.
It's not less about the money, but it's just also

about the cultural cachet of that whole tastemaker aspect that
they're talking.

Speaker 1 (29:35):
And I like that we're shifting to Southeby's because they
are also British and their provenance. But currently they are
headquartered in the Big Apple, which is what nerds call
New York City. So all right, So Southeby's has a
very different origin story. It's founded by a guy named
Samuel Baker, and Samuel is a publisher and a bookseller.

He founds this on March seventeen forty four because he
gets a crazy job. And I actually I wrote a
cool horror story about this, which I'll send you guys
if you're interested. But sure, so, okay, so this part
is true. This is not the horror story the you know,
auctionalities have some horrible past our buddy Sammy Bee is
given a weird job. He has to sell the library

of a guy named Sir John Stanley, who is the
first Baron Stanley of Alderly, which is very important in
places like Alderly. Anyway, you have to learn too much
about that name recognition. So Southeb's he goes back and
forth with a guy named George Lee and Southereb's becomes

the Southerebes we know today in seventeen seventy eight, because
Samuel Baker passes away and his business partner, George Lee
retains ownership, and then they also tap in Samuel Baker's nephew,
John Southern. This is where they start calling it Sotherby.
And at first they're just selling books, and they're very

famous for selling books of historical note and also books
that are kind of controversial in society. I'm talking like
occult works. I'm talking about stuff owned by Napoleon. They
were the true bibliophiles of their day.

Speaker 3 (31:22):
That's right. They were experts.

Speaker 2 (31:25):
This is absolutely was their background, and they knew how
to nose out very rare books and manuscripts. They were
often consulted Samuel Baker and George Lee, you know, before
some of these auctions would take place. So this led
to that reputation you're talking about ben in terms of
their knowledge around rare books and things from antiquity and

that sort of thing. But also they were experts on
the scholarly pursuits of art and art history.

Speaker 1 (31:54):
And at this point it's not all money laundry. I've
just walking down the street for that one.

Speaker 3 (32:01):
I know, yeah, that's right outside the door. Yes.

Speaker 2 (32:05):
Peter Wilson is a guy who is the chairman of
southby'st from nineteen fifty eight to nineteen eighty. He also
was a huge force in the houses relationship with art
and that art as currency kind of vibe. And this
definitely became a global interest, right because to your point, Ben,
I mean, it's not all money laundering, but it's certainly

an interesting way to hide liquid assets.

Speaker 3 (32:31):
In the title work of art.

Speaker 1 (32:33):
That's the title for this episode, auction Houses. It's not
all money laundry, not all of it, all right, We're
just gonna leave that there, Max.

Speaker 3 (32:43):
I think we should whatever sound you you wish.

Speaker 2 (32:45):
Then we have things like World War Two that really
shake things up, much like the French Revolution did in
terms of kind of you know, causing some very culturally
important works to change hands, and all of that was
assisted by these legacy auction house.

Speaker 3 (33:03):
And let me point this out too.

Speaker 1 (33:05):
I know it's something on all three of our minds
as well as many of us listening today, to be
very clear, in the wake of World War two, to
a lesser degree in the wake of World War One,
but in World War Two. Specifically, a lot of that
stuff was stolen from victims of aggression, victims of things

like the Holocaust, and stolen artwork from World War Two
remains an issue of international concern in the modern day.

Speaker 2 (33:38):
Well, and we know that these companies now are very
much modern companies with pr teams and folks that are
making sure that they don't get a bad rap for
doing that kind of thing, So there is optics around it.
But we do know that that's where a lot of
this stuff came from, was the unfair redistribution of wealth
gained from the pillaging of other cultures and individuals who

did not have the ability to defend themselves.

Speaker 1 (34:05):
I like the way you're putting it there, Nola, because
we also know, if we go to Benedetta Ricci writing
for Artland magazine, we also know that as global trade
networks increased, there was a lot of plunder from Indigenous
African Asian, South American Native American First nation countries. All

this stuff got a lot of it got stolen, auctioned off,
or excavated, whatever you want to call it. And after
the Civil War we also see an arms race amongst
the halves to get the coolest collection.

Speaker 3 (34:44):
We see the.

Speaker 1 (34:44):
Emergence or I would say, dare I say the demo
democratization amid the wealthy, the mercantile class of art collection
as creative act or pursuit. So the business tycoons United
States are saying, Hey, European aristocrats, you're not such a

big deal. I can beat me here, Max, I can
buy shit too, And so they start racing, thank you, sir.
They start racing for the highest bids on all these things.
And like several other several other characters that we've explored
of late, they did not know the Great Depression was

coming and they.

Speaker 2 (35:28):
Will never see it coming. It's the Spanish acquisition. It's
there were signs though, let's be fair, there were clear.

Speaker 1 (35:34):
Signs and uh, and we see them with the benefit
of retrospect. But then that alu goes to the slam
dunk of World War two and it makes a huge
impact on what we'll call the global art market.

Speaker 3 (35:48):
Now, we have to be clear.

Speaker 1 (35:50):
We've been talking about the West a lot, because that is,
you know, the Mediterranean, the Middle East, that's kind of
the origin point of what we recognize as auction houses today.
But there were other countries obviously in play. You know,
in the wake of World War Two, China, Japan, Korea,
they start to have their own local autonomous art markets.

The European art market is still really slow to recover
because you know, Europe was absolutely wrecked and rocked by
World War two, and that's you know, the fact that
European industrial and financial bases were destroyed is a big
reason why the United States is in its current position.

Speaker 2 (36:38):
Well, you can argue that, like Southeby's, you know, and
we talked too about in the early days in the
Roman time, there was like a marketing angle to these auctions.
So with Southeby's they obviously took that more in the
modern time. And so you could argue that through their
marketing efforts and the types of buyers they could attract,
they were largely responsible for creating the kind of movement

in the market of like how much these things are
worth and like driving the prices up, you know, and
creating that like art as economy of scale in its
own right, you know, I mean there were not that
many players. It was really like again these like old
timey legacy auction houses.

Speaker 1 (37:19):
Yeah, and they are very clever about it. I love
you're bringing up this point because what they did is
they transformed the idea of an auction from uh, stuffy,
from stuffy your granddad would want to go to to
Now it's a C and B seen thing, you know
what I mean. Now it's going. Now, it's going like
going to the coolest restaurant in Los Angeles or Rome,

you know.

Speaker 2 (37:43):
Celebrity Vegas. You know seen it, like the high Rollers table.
You know, it's like it really is as optics thing,
even just for being there.

Speaker 1 (37:52):
I didn't buy anything, but I sat next to Carrot
Top and George Clooney was in the building.

Speaker 3 (37:57):
That guy really loves human skulls.

Speaker 1 (37:58):
It's his main thing, always saying that.

Speaker 3 (38:03):
Sorry, if Keratop.

Speaker 1 (38:04):
Is actually really it seems to be really cool, dude,
we haven't met him.

Speaker 3 (38:07):
Yeah, no, it's.

Speaker 1 (38:15):
So now there is a social competition, right. There is
a rhythm to the auction chant that we mentioned, right,
the uh do I hear forty forty five? Going? Once?

Speaker 2 (38:27):

Speaker 1 (38:28):
Do I hear fifty to fifty?

Speaker 2 (38:29):

Speaker 1 (38:29):
You know what I mean? Go on? Yeah, mom spaghetti? Right,
And so the auction room. The auction room also benefits
from Sotha Bees again because they're very market forward. They
they do adopt communication strategies aggressively. And this is one

of the first places where you could have, right, you
could have an anonymous emperor or a chikh orme ever, right,
you could have them just bid through a proxy over
telephone and then later over satellite, you know.

Speaker 2 (39:07):
And that's when you start to see, uh, the kind
of posthumous celebrity artists, right like that really started getting
known because of not because of how beautiful they are
these pieces, but for how sickeningly valuable they are.

Speaker 3 (39:24):
And they're great.

Speaker 2 (39:27):
Everybody loves a Monet or a Vngal or a Picasso,
you know. And then in more modern times you start
to see this stuff happening around, folks like Andy Warhol
and Jackson Pollock setting these insane prices as things became
kind of this new trendy New York elite, you know,
creating these stars, even folks like Jean Michel Basquiat, you

know who. You know, if you go to modern art
museums or even just art museums, you're gonna see some
of these these newer names next to the wings that
contain all of the old masters and classics.

Speaker 1 (40:01):
Right, yeah, one hundred percent, you know. And in step
with this.

Speaker 3 (40:06):
We see the.

Speaker 1 (40:08):
Historical auction houses kind of reinterpreting or reframing themselves as
luxury good companies, you know, and they start shaping the market,
the auction market do. In reaction to broader economic trends,
investors start looking at looking at art as not just

a social flex but a legit investment. Right, if I
pay X amount of million dollars for a you know,
for like a dollar or something, then I can later
sell that or flip that, possibly for double the price.
Because what we're doing then, since there is no real

objective way to say one piece of art is better
worse than another, we are establishing precedent with every purchase.

Speaker 2 (41:00):
What's it worth? What's someone willing to pay for it?

Speaker 1 (41:02):

Speaker 2 (41:02):
And we know this can manifest itself in hilarious and
alarmingly disgusting displays of wealth, like in terms of like
art basal type things, and like the banana taped to
a wall that like sold for.

Speaker 3 (41:15):
Like a million bucks or whatever.

Speaker 2 (41:16):
You know, it's about the flex of it all, you
know about Yeah I bought I bought that. I think
it's brilliant outwardly, but maybe you know, it's sort of
like it's more about the investment of it for a
lot of these folks than it is about the You
know what, how does it make me.

Speaker 3 (41:33):
Feel the money makes me feel rich. It's kind of
the thing.

Speaker 4 (41:38):
Yeah, yeah, yeah, exactly exactly. I couldn't wrap my head around,
like why would you want to own this? Like this
gift is really famous, and it's like I still am
not getting it to that point.

Speaker 1 (41:51):
You know, some some of the most notable art investors,
I'll be uh courteous and describe you them as such,
may never actually see the pieces they own, and when
they sell stockpiled they sell them to someone else who
never sees it. The painting or sculpture whatever itself, never

moves from the freeport in which it's held.

Speaker 3 (42:14):
Shout out to several.

Speaker 1 (42:17):
Several sketchy people who are friends, who are friends.

Speaker 3 (42:20):
I get it. It's a good business.

Speaker 2 (42:21):
I think we talked off air about the idea of
doing an episode on freeport, and it's not something that
I am intimately familiar with at all. And I know
there's a lot of stuff they don't want you to
know about that topic too, So you might see a
version of that topic on both of the shows.

Speaker 1 (42:34):
Who knows, because we do these pretty often.

Speaker 3 (42:37):
Oh yeah we do.

Speaker 2 (42:39):
But yeah, you know, it really did become this luxury
kind of brand. Again, now that you see what it
means when someone has that Sotheby's logo on their home listing,
your mind immediately adds a couple of cachet points to,
you know, whatever the luxury aspect of this property might be.

Speaker 1 (42:59):
Yeah, and arguably that's because we the Americans, still have
a subconscious bias toward British things, you know what I mean?

Speaker 3 (43:08):
Like, that's a good point.

Speaker 1 (43:09):
It's true, it's kind of true. And so with this
we see the ancient past, the present, and indeed the
continuing future of auction houses, which will not go away.
They will continue to evolve. To date, as we record
on May second, Thursday, the most expensive item sold at

any auction is Salvador Monday by Leonardo da Vinci. It
was four hundred and fifty point three million dollars in
twenty seventeen, a record that would surely be broken. No,
maybe we end by.

Speaker 2 (43:47):
I was just trying to see what that piece was
Salvador money. Oh gosh, it's not even that famous. It's
Mona Lisa esque looking, but it's Jesus and he's just
holding up it. I don't even know this painting. Frankly,
that's fascinating.

Speaker 1 (44:01):
Well, all we need is four hundred and fifty point
three million and one dollar prices, right, you know what
I mean?

Speaker 2 (44:12):
You know, we talked a little bit about this off air,
just about how obviously for museums, you know, there's a
budget and stuff, but museums aren't out of their operating
costs shelling out these millions and millions of dollars. A
lot of their wings, like you know, the Tate Modern
or the MoMA in New York or whatever. They are
named after very wealthy benefactors who donate stuff to them

that they buy at auction and that you know, with
art where there isn't a problematic how did they get this?
You know, with modern art especially, it is more about
who was there, who was hipped to this stuff early
on early, you know, and became the tastemakers. David Geffen,
for example, like has a really cool wing at the MoMA.
That's the person that was very interested is a very

problematic business person, as a lot of these folks are
I think there's still a wing of the Harvard Art
Museum named after the Sackler family, which I think is
a little tout touch off touch, But it's not the
same as the provenance of antiquity and artifacts and all
of this stuff. Like a lot of that stuff does

go for auction, but in general it's more about being
donated or on loan from right.

Speaker 3 (45:23):
And that's how we're able to see a lot of these.

Speaker 2 (45:25):
Then there's going to be things that we're never going
to be able to see, or it might go on
tour from a private collection and then get you know,
housed back up in that warehouse or whatever.

Speaker 1 (45:34):
And the government of China still technically owns all the pandas.

Speaker 3 (45:38):
They are all on loan.

Speaker 1 (45:40):
Yeah, and museums have had a great reckoning or what
some in the southern US would call it come to
Jesus moment about the providence of their exhibitions. I do
want to say before we get to a fun little
cavalcade of weird things auctioned. It was a mystery for
a long time the person who made the world's largest
single art auction purchase. It's mystery for a long time,

and it took the work of the US intelligence community
to figure out who bought this. It was the Crown
Prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed Ben Solomon. He won this
auction in twenty seventeen and was kept super secret, and
I am one hundred percent convinced to his money laundering. Okay,

you heard it here, folks, because like you said, is
that painting that impressive?

Speaker 3 (46:28):

Speaker 2 (46:29):
No, I mean it's a Da Vinci, I guess, but no,
that's a lot. That's insane. I think that's the thing too.
It's like a small painting. When UH invested in, it's
almost like a monetary dark matter, you know what I mean.

Speaker 3 (46:44):
Like it's just so dense.

Speaker 2 (46:46):
With value, and you know, and you can store it,
you know, in a in a very secure location and
it holds the value, right, but you don't actually have
to have the money.

Speaker 1 (46:56):
And also, maybe I'm being unfair you guys calling it
money laundring because they are opening a loove franchise in
the United Arab Emirates. So maybe it's part of the
soft power of diplomacy and culture becoming international.

Speaker 2 (47:13):
But that's we can certainly call it money like transaction obscuring.

Speaker 3 (47:18):
Oh yeah, thank you.

Speaker 1 (47:20):
That's a good way to say it, nol And maybe
that's a maybe that's an episode for stuff they want
you to know. But we were thinking with thanks to
our research associate with mister Max Williams, we might end
today's episode by giving you some of.

Speaker 3 (47:33):
The uh.

Speaker 1 (47:35):
Weirdly hot, the weirdest, highly priced items sold at auctions.
And this isn't even counting. This is a small list.
There's a lot of weird stuff, especially historical figures, memorabilia
or celebrity memorabilia. A lot of that stuff sells for
crazy prices. One that doesn't surprise me they're any comic fan.

The first Superman cop make was sold for three point
two million dollars.

Speaker 2 (48:03):
Yeah, and shout out to Great Expectations Auction and Estate
Services for this blog post about twenty one craziest items ever.

Speaker 3 (48:10):
Sold at auction.

Speaker 2 (48:11):
Uh yeah, that Action Comics is famously valuable. There are
a couple of items in the here and the Theoretically,
if we pooled our ducats, we could afford if what
we wanted was a sixty five year old slice of
royal wedding cake.

Speaker 3 (48:24):
Yeah, we could also just Bill shatters canney Stone.

Speaker 1 (48:26):
We could also just know I think he can just
jol Willie and ask him for some of his hair.

Speaker 2 (48:32):
Well, it's less than a grand for the cake, you know,
the sixty five year old slice of Royal Weddy cake
nine undred and twenty five dollars.

Speaker 3 (48:38):
Shatner's kidney stone. I don't know.

Speaker 2 (48:40):
We really have to pool our resources and maybe bring
some other folks in on it. That's twenty five k.
We talked off air about what would someone want with William?
This is a real treky. But then that's what you
pointed out, Ben, and I think you're not wrong. But
then I to that, I ask, what is the value
of William Shatner's d to day?

Speaker 3 (48:57):
Do we really we need thousand dollars? I would stop
at Max.

Speaker 1 (49:01):
You know we also we also know I'm making the
Willie Nelson reference because for less than forty grand, we
can get Willie Nelson's braids, or again.

Speaker 3 (49:11):
Willie braids, not brains. You'll just braid. Just we single
we can all know. I guess it was this. It
was the Duel braids.

Speaker 1 (49:19):
Yeah, we could also just ask him, he seems chill.
Just get him on air and be like, hey man,
what's the going price on some of your hair.

Speaker 3 (49:28):
He'll probably think he would give it willingly if he
was getting willingly. Yeah, yeah, jeez.

Speaker 2 (49:33):
Roger Banister, who I'm guessing is a famous athlete.

Speaker 3 (49:36):
I'm familiar with Roger He Yeah, that's right.

Speaker 2 (49:40):
He did a four minute mile famously, and his running
shoes went for four hundred and eleven thousand, four hundred
and ninety three dollars. Surely we have some nerdier stuff
on this list that we can wrap our heads around, right.

Speaker 1 (49:54):
Yeah, sure, hands Solos blaster gun. That prop was auction
for two hundred thousand dollars. You know. Also, just to
be clear, it doesn't shoot lasers.

Speaker 2 (50:08):
Yeah, he this is the one where he'd be he
shot first at the gredo.

Speaker 3 (50:13):
This is the one.

Speaker 2 (50:13):
This is this is a murder weapon, or at least
you know in theory, you know, within the cannon. You know,
we said Star Trek, part of the spiral staircase of
the Eiffel Tower sold for ninety k at auction. And
if we're talking about bonkers, arn't money. You gotta talk
about mister Jeff Coons, you know, the guy that does
the big.

Speaker 3 (50:33):
Balloon animal dog things.

Speaker 2 (50:37):
Yeah, one of his pieces, it was an orange one
sold for a fifty eight point four million dollars.

Speaker 3 (50:44):
How does that even happen? Think about how many kidney
stones can get with that money. Think about how a
whole thing up with kidney stone.

Speaker 1 (50:50):
Think about how many systemic illnesses you could prevent with
that money. All right, I brought the mood down.

Speaker 3 (50:57):
I brought these stones, right? Yeah?

Speaker 2 (51:01):
Oh well, well, I guess the ones to take us
out with, guys is the one that took out of
all of the folks as the Titanic sank to it
to its doom. The violin that played as the Titanic
sank famously was auction.

Speaker 3 (51:16):
For only one point seven mil. That seems reasonable. Was
it a really I wonder.

Speaker 2 (51:21):
If it was like a really nice make too, like
you know oftentimes like Strata varius is and sure fancy
instruments w auction for a lot of.

Speaker 3 (51:30):
Oh that's probably true, Max, What was I thinking? It was? Probably?

Speaker 1 (51:34):

Speaker 3 (51:34):
Holog does all hell?

Speaker 1 (51:35):
Well, who are we to judge art and.

Speaker 3 (51:38):
The clearly not authorities?

Speaker 1 (51:42):
Oh we could be maybe we would start an auction,
but we're such softies. We would give all the stuff
away for free. Yeah, folks, we hope you enjoyed this exploration.
We've got more on the way, thanks as always to
super producer mister Max Williams. Thanks to Jonathan Strickland who
assured me earlier this morning he's having a great hair

day on the inside. I know.

Speaker 2 (52:06):
We had a call this morning where there was a
bunch of different folks in the company and we were
talking about.

Speaker 3 (52:11):
Various things and lovely group of people, and it came
up that certain of.

Speaker 2 (52:15):
Us were having nice hair days, and it was pointed
out that Jonathan Strickland is always having a good hair
day and the point inside and the inside.

Speaker 1 (52:22):
Thanks also to aj Bahamas, jacobs Ak the Puzzler.

Speaker 3 (52:25):
He's Jeff. We're going to see him next week. I'm excited.

Speaker 1 (52:28):
Christopher hasse otis h Let's see who else? Oh, Ben
Thompson Badass of the week.

Speaker 3 (52:34):
It's right, yeah, And of course he's Jeff. Coach. Ris
frosciotis here in spirit. Let's thank you Alex who composed
our felling on twice. Yeah, we'll see you next time, folks.

Speaker 2 (52:53):
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