In 1770, in Poor Richard’s Almanack, a work of prudent advice for living a good life, the printer and electrical experimenter Benjamin Franklin lambasted the attendees of an auction. “Here you are all got together to this sale of fineries and nick-nacks. You call them goods; but, if you do not take care, they will prove evils to some of you. You expect they will be sold cheap… but, if you have no occasion for them, they must be dear to you. Remember what Poor Richard says, “Buy what thou hast no need of, and ere long thou shalt sell thy necessaries.”… “Many have been ruined by buying good pennyworths.”… and yet this folly is practiced every day at auctions, for want of minding the Almanack.”
Many people in the eighteenth century shared Franklin’s distrust of auctions as places of disreputable dealers, fraudulent commerce and ill-advised speculations. Yet auctions were an important site of “public science” in the period. In an age when “experimental philosophy”, especially its Newtonian variant, was becoming ever popular in an increasingly prosperous Britain, the auction emerged alongside public lecture courses and parlour experiments as a prominent site where aspiring members of the public could participate in the sciences. They bought (and increasingly sold) instruments, specimens, curiosities, maps, archives and books, and learned about the natural world, and some of the grubbier elements of the human world, in the process.
Auctions are ancient in origin, but the modern enthusiasm for buying old goods like books, antiques, and art grew popular in the seventeenth century. “Auction” comes from the Latin augeo, “I augment, or increase”. Book auctions flourished in late seventeenth-century England in coffee-houses and taverns, providing scholars and collectors with a chance to find rarities and bargains. Soon the goods sold widened: paintings and curiosities, the tools of defunct traders, estate sales. Auctions suffered from a bad reputation. Auctioneers were said to try every trick they could to entice buyers. They mixed old rubbish with desirable items; they fueled competition by offering alcohol and tobacco to attendees. Accomplices known as “sweetners” stood among the crowd to push up bids. Those who attended auctions weren’t much better, often lampooned as gullible idiots who wouldn’t know a quality painting if it hit them. A contemporary satirical print showed bidders as a group of pretentious connoisseurs admiring a picture of a windmill that was, in fact, upside down.
To overcome their dire reputations, auctioneers presented themselves as distinguished gentlemen who would only sell the finest items in well-to-do settings. This was the enormously successful strategy of James Christie, who founded his auction house in Pall mall in 1766. Christie presented his auctions as something elite, exclusive, and exquisite. He mixed with fine society and focused on goods with a high level of cultural capital: fine wines, fine art and high-end furniture. Christie and others helped make auctions all the rage. It became de rigueur to attend them. Charles Jenner wrote in his Town Eclogues of 1772 about a fashionable lady who, “In one continual hurry rolled her days/ At routs, assemblies, auctions, op’ras, plays.”
“Natural philosophers” (the early modern term for scientists) also attended auctions. In the 1670s Robert Hooke was even a bit of an auction addict, frequently visiting the coffee-houses around St Pauls and Covent Garden to buy scientific books. By the mid-eighteenth century many auctions included scientific instruments and natural specimens – rare plants, exotic shells, stuffed animals, and the like. Auctions haven’t been appreciated as scientific sites in this period, but they generated new knowledge and created a second-hand market that made instruments more widely accessible. Auction catalogues could be significant contributions to knowledge. Sometimes, collections of naturalia remained unknown until a catalogue was made to sell them off at auction. The 1786 catalogue of the duchess of Portland’s collection of shells, whose authors included the eminent naturalist Daniel Solander, noted that “the celebrated Linnaeus, who had studied the Subject (of conchology), has not described One Fourth Part of the Objects contained in the Museum now offered to the Public.” New species discovered in the process of making the catalogue were marked with an “S”.
In the seventeenth century, only the wealthy could afford elaborate scientific instruments like telescopes and microscopes. In the course of the eighteenth, though, many aristocratic families fell on hard times and used the new auction houses to sell off their possessions to raise funds. The historian Cynthia Wall has called this process “dismantling”, as now a growing middle class could, and did, purchase the possessions of the upper-classes for their own uses. The same thing happened in the sciences. Instruments formerly belonging to the wealthy became available at auction, where natural philosophers purchased them to use in scientific research. The Portland sale was one such event, distributing the amassed natural collections of the duchess to an assortment of scholars of lower rank. In 1793 the auctioneers Skinner and Dyke followed the Portland auction with a sale of the effects of the Earl of Bute. These included minerals, prints, books, maps and all sorts of chemical, mathematical, optical and philosophical instruments. Less well-to-do men of science like Tiberius Cavallo and Francis John Hyde Wollaston snapped up the lots on offer. Cavallo, an electrical experimenter, bought five Dolland telescopes and clearly recognized the “dismantling” going on: “what had cost many years in collecting, arranging, &c. was dismembered and alienated in as many hours.”
In the long run, then, auctions proved much more appealing to the scientifically-inclined than Franklin needed to worry about. While early auctions suffered from a bad reputation, a class of high-end auctioneers made them more agreeable in the eighteenth century, and buyers began flocking to sales. Auctions provided a site to learn about nature, through the purchase of instruments, shells, and specimens, or through reading catalogues that could bring about the discovery of new species. Over time, auctions helped to redistribute the material culture of science to new communities of investigators. By creating a market for second-hand science in the eighteenth century, auctions helped to make it first-rate.