Long the preferred method of exchange for antiques and horseflesh, auctions are used today to sell everything from bestselling books to real estate, government bonds to abandoned automobiles. As sociologist Charles Smith reveals, the mechanical law of supply and demand rarely governs the auction process. Rather value is determined by a complex social process combining both the beliefs and actions of the auction participants and the assumptions and practices on the auction floor. Based on years of participation in and observation of different types of auctions and interviews with hundreds of auctioneers, Smith gives us not only a theoretical understanding of the auction process but the sights and sounds as well.
"Considerations similar to those operative in wife auctions explain the historical practice of exchanging slaves through auctions. The central concern was not establishing a fair price or even proper allocation, but establishing publicly their new social identity as slaves; in the resale of slaves, it was the change of ownership that had to be established publicly. This explains, in part, why slaves continued to be publicly auctioned even when such public exhibitions served to generate opposition to the institution of slavery. Slavery entailed specific social identifies that could only be established publicly. If the process of establishing such an identity also entailed negotiating a price, the only practical solution was likely to be an auction" (49).
"What gives auctions their intense social tone is the extent to which this communal character is being continually reproduced and modified. Auctions are special not because they are more social but rather because they are more actively focused on their social status" (52).