Objects in Competition: Auctions in the Early Modern Period

Frontispiz eines parodistischen Auktionskatalogs, 1725.
HAB: Wt 121.

Auctions were a popular method of making goods available to a broad market and converting them into money in early modern times. Objects offered at auctions, ranged from individual groups of commercial objects (fish, oil or plants) over collections (estates or cabinets of art and natural objects) to immaterial goods (ranks or functions). As auctions were intended to attract many potential buyers, sellers announced the lots to be auctioned through auction catalogues and presented them in promotional preview appointments (as hands on events).

My research project concentrates on things, takes up approaches of materiality and collection research and uses auctions as a means to investigate how things were classified, enriched with metadata and turned into “meaningful” and valuable commodities. Its analytical starting point is the competition, which decisively influenced how in both textual and oral-performative form the "exhibits" were presented and appropriated – and how the auctions thus developed their very own logics as "places of knowledge".

One emphasis of the project lies on investigating the actual practice of auctioning and the role of sellers and buyers, who played an important role in describing and appropriating things: the auction catalogues’ authors, the auctioneers, who were responsible for the design and adherence to the "games’ rules", and the buyers, who saw themselves exposed to a setting that levelled social differences in co-presence and in the dispute over things.

In addition, the project is interested in the significance of the commercial practice at auctions for the history of knowledge. It focuses on the scope of the object explorations carried out in the context of auctions by shedding light on their impact on debates about the economic value and provenance of the objects auctioned. The project thus sees itself as a contribution to research at the crossroads between the history of objects, economics and knowledge.


Funding: HAB
Duration: January 2019 – December 2023
Researcher: Dr. Elizabeth Harding
Phone: +49(0)5331-808-208, Fax -266