Saturday, October 07, 2006

Auction Hammers and Gavels
By Robert A. Doyle, CAI, ISA, CES, CAGA

50th President of the National Auctioneers Association
Principal Auctioneer/Appraiser Absolute Auction & Realty, Inc.

Robert A. Doyle


gavel3A symbol of authority, used to show “finality” to an auction transaction, the auction hammer, or gavel, has been a prized possession of the professional auctioneer all through history. In fact, during the late 19th century and early 20th century, auctioneers were referred to as “Knights of the Hammer.”

The hammer is one of the oldest working tools used by man. This was illustrated by the Scandinavian mythological “Thor,” the principal god who wielded his hammer to destroy his enemies. According to the legend his hammer always returned to him without doing injury to himself. It can be said that the striking of the hammer is to destroy the enemies of all that is good or true.

The origin of the auction hammer, or gavel, is not clear. Research shows that very little has been written on the subject. Even the historical derivation of the word “gavel” is unknown. Originally, the word “gavel” was used in Middle English to represent the payment of “rent” from a tenant to a superior, or landlord. If the payment was made by product the word would be shown as a hyphenated term such as gavel-corn, gavel-malt, etc. Sometimes the word was spelled “gabel.” Other words related to the early rent arrangements were “gavelman” (a tenant obligated to pay rent) and “gavelet” (Legal writ authorizing the payment of rent). It is very likely that the word “gavel” was applied to the hammer that had to settle rent disputes, as there is evidence that there were many unruly rent disputes in the English Court system.

The generic word “gavel” came to mean many different objects from hammer, mallets, mallots, setting mauls and hammers.

Perhaps the earliest users of the hammer were the Masonic Lodges which were known to exist in England dating back as early as the 1400s. Originally the masons used a setting maul as a symbol of maintaining order during their meetings. This maul would be placed upright when the meeting was in order and laid in its cradle when the lodge was recessed. In addition, during the middle ages “Mallets were thrown and all ground over which traversed were acknowledged to be possessed by the thrower. This practice gave rise to the symbolism of the mallet indicating the possession of his lodge.” (Hunt and Haywood). Further evidence is presented in an English ordinance enacted in 1462 that declared that “lewd women should remain as far from the Masonic Lodges as a hammer could be hurled.”

gavel1The Masonic Order used the hammer or gavel for keeping order and punctuating actions in the lodges and meetings. Although it was permissible to strike the hammer to indicate finality, according to Roberts Rules, “It is a mistake for the presiding officer to try to keep order by pounding with the gavel.”

A symbol of authority
The gavel is a symbol of authority. The hammer symbolizes executive power, as this tool provides a striking blow. Ultimately, it is a symbol of authority without the use of force. Freemasons sometimes refer to this gavel as the “president’s hammer.” The gavel of the Master lodge was referred to as a “Hiram” as it keeps order in the Lodge as Hiram did in the Temple. (Mackey & Hunt).

The word “Gavel” was a fairly late arrival. It is said to be an American usage for the words hammer and maul. The gavel is described in the English Dictionary of 1901 as a mason’s setting maul or a presid: hammer.

gavel2The gavel represents the force of conscience. Perhaps, that is why the American Senate operates with the use of a gavel. “The original ivory gavel is one of the most precious articles in the Senate’s collection. According to tradition, Vice President John Adams (our first Vice President and therefore our first President of the Senate) used this gavel to call the Senate to order in New York in the spring of 1789. Although we cannot document that, we know for certain the gavel was used as early as 1831. In the late 1940s the old gavel began to wear out, so silver tips were added to each end to strengthen and preserve it. In 1954, as Vice President Richard Nixon presided over a heated discussion about atomic energy, the precious gavel fell apart. Senate officials wanted to recreate the original as exactly a possible. When no ivory of sufficient size could by found commercially, India, through its embassy, provided the ivory and had the new gavel hand-carved in exactly the same dimensions as the new one. The new gavel began service n November 17, 1954, and is still in use today. At the end of each long day of service the gavel is placed in a box beside the mended original gavel.” (

Today, the gavel is used less and less in formal settings and has become a symbol of authority rather then a tool of the trade. In an article titled “The Vanishing Sound of the Rap of the Gavel” by Deborah Pines, she reveals that few judges use the gavel that is displayed on their courtroom bench. The same is true of many auctioneers. Perhaps, this is a good trend. Rather than the inflexible, final, harsh rap of the gavel to seal a decision, humanity is evolving its systems into more compassionate, and reasonably flexible institutions that allow for “appeals” and perhaps a second chance.

Trivia: How big and where is the World’s largest gavel? The Guinness Book of World Records places it at Gallery Auctions 10205 Sweetwater, Houston, TX 77037. 9 ¾ feet long. The head is 64 inches in circumference. The gavel weighs 270 pounds.



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