In the mid-18th century, the art world and art market in London was changing rapidly. Rouquet offers his own view of the newly-developing world of public art auctions and their role in influencing taste.
In London there are extraordinary sales of pictures and curiosities, which are a kind of market for the productions of the arts. This occasion furnishes us with another instance of that regularity and method which the English introduce into all sorts of business, and especially of the excessive care they take to consult the purchaser’s ease.
Within these twenty or thirty years they have built several halls or auction rooms in London, which are set aside for the sale of pictures.
These halls are lofty, spacious, and separate from any other building, to the end that on every side they may receive full light thro’ the glass windows which range all round them, but which do not come down so low as to hinder the walls at a certain height from being occasionally covered with pictures. Any private person, broker or other, who has collected a quantity of pictures sufficient to make a public sale, agrees with the proprietor of one of these auction rooms, who is at the same time appraiser and crier. He receives the pictures and ranges them in his hall, according to their excellence and value, each with its respective ticket; then he prints a catalogue of them wherein each picture is to be found in the order of the ticket or number, with the real or supposed name of some eminent master; the subject is also mentioned in these catalogues, and they are distributed gratis. Tho’ the conditions of these sales are known to all the world, yet they are repeated every time at the beginning of these catalogues, to the end that considered as a mutual compact or agreement, they may be a means of determining without litigation, the rights of the seller as well as of the purchasers. One of these conditions fixes the sum you shall advance; and less than that you are not allowed to bid. If any thing be put to sale at any price between three and six shillings, you are not allowed to advance less than three pence: under twelve shillings you are to advance six pence: and this rule is observed in the same proportion of the penny to the shilling, till the article mounts to a hundred guineas, where it ends, whatever may be the sum to which it is further carried.
These reasonable conditions are made to prevent the prolonging the time of sale to no sort of purpose, and to avoid the ridiculous and unmanly practice which obtains in other places, of advancing a penny for an article which was put to sale at six hundred pounds.
As soon as the sale is advertised, the room in which it is to be held, and where the pictures are advantageously displayed, is open for two or three days successively, to every body that has a mind to go in, except the meanest of the populace. A peace officer, dressed with the ensigns of his employment, stands to guard the door. The inhabitants of London amuse themselves with going to see the goods exposed to sale, just as the people amuse themselves at Paris in the great hall, when the performances of the artists of the academy are exposed to public view. As soon as the day and hour of sale, which is at twelve noon, are come, the room is filled with persons of different sexes and conditions. They take their places on benches opposite to a little rostrum, which stands by itself, and is raised in the further end of the room about four feet from the ground. The auctioneer mounts with a great deal of gravity, salutes the assembly, and prepares himself a little, like an orator, to perform his office with all the gracefulness and eloquence of which he is master. He takes his catalogue, he orders his servants to present the first article, which he declares aloud; in his hand he holds a little ivory hammer, with which he strikes a blow on the rostrum, when he thinks proper to signify to the company that the article put up to sale is determined.
Nothing can be more entertaining than this sort of auctions; the number of the persons present, the different passions which they cannot help shewing on these occasions, the pictures, the auctioneer himself, and his rostrum, all contribute to diversify the entertainment. There you may see a tricking broker, who shall employ another secretly to buy what he himself runs down before the company, or who shall lay a dangerous snare by pretending to purchase with the greatest eagerness a picture belonging to himself. There some shall be tempted to buy, and others sorry for having made any purchase. There a man shall give fifty guineas thro’ vanity and pique, when he would not have given five and twenty, had he not dreaded the shame of being outbid in the presence of a numerous assembly whose eyes were all fixed upon him. There you shall see a woman of quality grow as pale as ashes, when she finds herself in danger of losing a wretched pagod which she does not want, and which upon any other occasion she would not have purchased.
The number of articles marked on the catalogue for each day’s sale, is about seventy; from the order and regularity observed at those sales, a person absent in enabled to judge, within half an hour, at what time such or such an article will be put to sale; a vast conveniency for those who have no time to spare. This sort of sales have spread a pretty general taste for pictures in London; a taste which they not only excite but form; there you learn to know the different schools and different masters; in a word, it is a kind of gaming, where the knowing ones employ all the wiles and artifices imaginable to make dupes of the unwary; and too often they succeed.
It sounds as if not much has changed in either the practices of perils of auctions.