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  • The English Auction: Narratives of Dismantlings
  • Cynthia Wall (bio)

An art dealer in New York once asked me, “Why do you suppose two of the oldest and canniest auction houses sprang up in England in the eighteenth century?” 1 This essay is the first part towards a study of the rhetorical strategies and cultural implications of the English auction, which became enormously popular in the eighteenth century, drawing men and women from a wide social spectrum into the participatory spectacle of competitive bidding for various kinds of property. By 1784, when the most renowned auctioneer James Christie (gentleman) sold the library of the most renowned literary figure Samuel Johnson (deceased), Christie had professionalized oral and textual strategies that on the one hand would suggest the power of the auctioneer to dismantle a particular emblem of a social order (a collection, a house, a trade, an estate) and that at the same time would invite the viewer, the bidder, the buyer—who may or may not be in the same social class as the previous owner—to reconstruct its possibilities. This essay will focus on three aspects of the auction: on Christie as an emblem of self-made gentility; on the narrative trajectories of his delivery and catalogs as invitations to imagining social change; and, more speculatively, on the role of the witnessing/participating audience in enabling such change. [End Page 1]

The image that the term auction now conjures for most English-speaking readers presumably is the ascending-bid, going-going-gone method that is actually called the “English style auction.” But this method is neither the only nor the most efficient form of auction. The economic historian Ralph Cassady gives a summary of Dutch descending-bid and Japanese simultaneous-bid schemes, suggesting historical, environmental, and implicitly cultural reasons for various auctioneering practices. Earlier auction methods in England included silent paper-bids, the candle method, and other more individually centered patterns (including a descending-price method called “mineing” that closed when a bidder shouted “Mine!”). 2 Many options existed; yet the version that quickly and firmly dominated the English auction scene is one shaped by public, overtly competitive, escalating, visible, and visibly manipulated tactics:

In the ascending bid auction, buyer competition is at its maximum intensity level. . . . The English-type auction is so structured that competition among individual buyers is more overt than in other auction systems, and the auctioneer has more opportunities to use manipulative tactics. The auctioneer’s influence depends in part on his 3 personality, his voice, and his imperturbability, but he must also know values, must be skillful in stimulating competition, and must be able to accelerate the selling pace when the occasion requires it. 4

James Christie, known to his contemporaries as “The Specious Orator,” polished precisely such a combination of personality, voice, and imperturbability while playing upon competing cultural energies, recognizing and capitalizing on potentially porous social and commercial boundaries, finding and defining cultural interests, and discovering ways to repackage and resell those interests. By 1772, as the itinerary for the socialite in Charles Jenner’s Town Eclogues suggests, auctions, with Christie at their metonymic center, were tremendously popular, almost de rigueur for fashionable town life:

In one continual hurry rolled her days At routs, assemblies, auctions, op’ras, plays, Subscription balls and visits without end, And poor Cornelys owned no better friend. From Loo she rises with her rising sun And Christie sees her aching head at one.

Auctions had become fixtures among other social spectacles, participatory or otherwise; and Christie, like the famous professional hostess Theresa Cornelys, figured at the center of genteel—but public—spectacle management. Yet for all its popularity, the auction could be a profoundly ambivalent experience for those most committed to its pleasures—the fashionable world—precisely because it wasn’t just the fashionable world to whom auctions appealed. In 1751 Horace Walpole worried that “Gidion the Jew and Blakiston the independent Grocer have been the chief purchasers of [his father’s] pictures sold already [at Houghton].” 5 The public nature of the auction, as well as its formal structure of competitive bidding, created a spectacle of commercial and social dynamic that by definition meant a significant (or...

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