A candle auction, or auction by the candle, is a variation on the typical English auction that became popular in the 17th and 18th centuries. In a candle auction, the end of the auction is signaled by the expiration of a candle flame, which was intended to ensure that no one could know exactly when the auction would end and make a last-second bid. Sometimes, other unpredictable processes, such as a footrace, were used in place of the expiration of a candle.
Auction by the candle was known in England by 1641, when it is mentioned in the records of the House of Lords. The practice rapidly became popular, and in 1652, John Milton wrote, "The Council thinks it meet to propose the way of selling by inch of candle, as being the most probable means to procure the true value of the goods." Samuel Pepys's diary of his London life records two occasions when the Admiralty (his employer) sold surplus ships "by an inch of candle" (November 1660 and September 1662). Pepys also relates a hint from a highly successful bidder, who had observed that, just before expiring, a candle-wick always flares up slightly: on seeing this, he would shout his final - and winning - bid.
Although the candle auction went out of favor in the 16th century, it was still not uncommon in the sale of ships at Lloyd's Coffee House in London in the early 19th Century. For instance, Sarah Christiana, among other ships, was offered for sale in a candle auction in 1828.
A few candle auctions are still held today as a form of tradition. In Chedzoy, Somerset, a plot of church land is sold by candle auction once every 21 years. In Tatworth, a 6-acre (24,000 m2) plot is auctioned by candle once per year. In Leigh, Dorset, two pieces of land, Alton Mead and Bere (or Beer) Mead, are auctioned annually. And in Bourne, Lincolnshire, the 1-acre (4,000 m2) White Bread Meadow is auctioned by means of a race between two boys from the town.
A modern variant of the candle auction is used in some online auction systems to prevent auction sniping. In these auctions, a computer randomly selects the time when the auction will end to discourage snipers from attempting to enter bids at the last second. Indeed, Füllbrunn and Sadrieh show theoretically and experimentally that bidders submit serious bids from the start in candle auctions.
- R.W. Patten. "Tatworth Candle Auction." Folklore 81, No. 2 (Summer 1970), 132-135
- William S. Walsh A Handy Book Of Curious Information Comprising Strange Happenings in the Life of Men and Animals, Odd Statistics, Extraordinary Phenomena and Out of the Way Facts Concerning the Wonderlands of the Earth. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott Co., 1913. 63-64.
- London Public Ledger And Daily Advertiser, 15 February 1828, p.4.
- Jeremy Hobson. Curious County Customs. Newton Abbot: David & Charles, 2007. 76-77.
- Füllbrunn, Sascha; Sadrieh, Abdolkarim (2012), "Sudden Termination Auctions - An Experimental Study", Journal of Economics & Management Strategy, 21 (2), pp. 519–540, doi:10.1111/j.1530-9134.2012.00329.x, hdl:2066/111846