Weird and wonderful traditional auction types

I’ve always thought that auctions work best if they carry on while bidders are happy to bid. Most offline (and online) auctions I am familiar continue until no more bids are received – just like the way the standard procurement reverse auction works.

On the other hand eBay is notable for always finishing an auction at a predefined time. This encourages bid sniping where potential buyers tactically try to wait for the last possible moment to get their best bid in. So I was fascinated and entertained to read in “The English Year” by Steve Roud about traditional buying auctions which rely on a fixed time to end rather than continuing indefinitely.

In a candle auction a candle was lit and bids were accepted until the candle went out. Or a pin would be put in a candle and bids would be taken until the candle burned down far enough for the pin to drop out. Apparently this was an officially sanctioned way of running auctions in the 17th century and Steven cites examples where candle auctions still take place in England (on the 6th of April at Tatwell, 13th December at Aldermaston).

Other weird and wonderful (to modern readers) auction types Steven cites are

  • The Running Auction that takes place in Bourne, Lincolnshire on the Monday before Easter. This is to auction grazing rights on a piece of land, and bids are accepted for as long as it takes for 2 children to complete a 200 yard race, and
  • An auction at Wishford in Wiltshire that takes place on Rogation Monday, also for grazing rights, in which “[b]uyers are summoned by the church bell, about fifteen minutes before sunset, and the parish clerk walks up and down between the church porch and gate while the bidding takes place. As soon as the sun dips below the horizon, he strikes the church key on the gate, and the auction is over”.

Looks like eBay’s approach has a good historical pedigree🙂

The serious point, though, is that these types of auctions that tried to fix a specific end time eventually died out to be replaced by open-ended auctions.

5 thoughts on “Weird and wonderful traditional auction types

  1. I believe B2B “auctions” are missing the boat for three reasons:

    1. Their called auctions. The perception being a clear line drawn with buyer on one side and vendor on the other.

    2. They are binding. They don’t allow the buyer and the vendor to collaborate before signing the deal. This collaboration could further the savings or expose big problems.

    3. The money. Historically reverse auctions concentrate more on the transaction than connecting buyers with vendors.


    Marc Deye

  2. This inspired us to look at what was before candles?

    The earliest record found is taken from as early as 500BC in Babylon for negotiating the terms of your daughters marriage!

    We then have the constantly inventive Romans devising auctions for selling spoils of war such as land, slaves, weaponry and so on, until one of the most significant auctions occurred when Rome itself was put on the auction block!

    The highest bidder, a chap called Didius, was actually later beheaded so it is certainly the case that the leading bidder does not necessarily end up being the winner!

    A note on Marc’s point above – Auctions dont have to be binding, they can be run on a buyers choice basis. This means that this clause needs to be inserted into the documentation and whilst the best bidder is looked on favourably, the buyer can still bring in the top 3 suppliers to negotiate further.

    1. Thanks for the feedback, glad you enjoyed the posts. I liked your article and agree that bid sniping is of questionable value. If you want to buy something and are willing to go to price X then set price X as your limit and see how close to that limit you have to get.

      The auctions I have been writing about are generally large-value business-to-business auctions. It would be a real problem in those if one bidder was able to end up with the leading bid simply due to being able to get a bid in at the last second (note I didn’t say “win” as winning the business is not necessarily the same as leading the price auction). Internet connections and browsers are a lot more stable now than what they used to be, but in the types of auction I have seen you still want to give people the opportunity to respond to any new bid that was put in. And when it comes to Dutch auctions, I still wouldn’t want to have to risk a connection issue meaning the whole auction fails – or perhaps I am just being a bit too set in my ways🙂

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