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The Problem of Financial Accounting Measurement in Italian Accounting Thought between the 19th and the 20th Century From “Exchange Value” to “Historical Cost”

Listed author(s):
  • Enrico Gonnella

    (università di pisa - Università di Pisa)

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    The main subject of the paper is the theory of accounting measurement as observed in its historical development. More notably, the research concerns theoretical concepts of such discipline, as developed by the Italian doctrine in a very specific age, that is, between the second half of the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth century, i.e. from the theorization of the “exchange value rule” to the theorization of the “historical cost principle”. As it was impossible to examine the thought of the many scholars who gave their contribution, each one in his own way, to the development of this subject, we deemed it appropriate to focus our attention on those scholars who left their mark on the accounting history in the analyzed period. We will mention in particular such scholars as Francesco Villa, Giovanni Rossi, Fabio Besta, Gino Zappa, the latter seen in the early stage of his thinking. The analysis of the different theories devised by the above-mentioned masters, which cannot but be conducted within the limited length of this paper, led us to identify three logical steps in the evolution of the theories that have been developed on the subject in the considered phase. The results of the study can be summarized in the following considerations. In the second half of the nineteenth century, some of the best accounting experts, faced with the need to properly develop the problem of accounting measurement, thought it appropriate to rely on concepts that belonged to similar sciences, such as economics and real estate appraisal discipline, by blindly borrowing the theory of value from the former and the theory of valuation from the latter. During such age, everything hinged around the concept of “exchange value”. At the dawn of the last century, the scholars' attitude tended to become more critical. Doctrine in particular began to wonder about a subject that was crucial to the theory of accounting measurement, notably the informative purposes from which such theory takes inspiration. At the same time, a first principle took shape, which is still the basis of the theory of accounting measurement, which might be called the finalistic principle of value, which lays down that different measurement criteria must be applied to different informative purposes. An alternative criterion to that of the “exchange value” thus makes its appearance on the scene of the accounting measurement, notably, the historical cost principle. With its introduction and above all with the relinquishment of the combination of economic cost that had been initially accepted by the doctrine and the later transition to the combination of manufacturing cost, the accounting world managed to get rid, once and for all, of economic and valuative assumptions, thus becoming independent in its accounting measurements. This is mainly due to the scholars' ability to learn precious lessons from the observation of the accounting scene of the time.

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    Paper provided by HAL in its series Post-Print with number halshs-00465927.

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    Date of creation: 2010
    Publication status: Published in Journées d'Histoire de la Comptabilité et du Management, 2010, France
    Handle: RePEc:hal:journl:halshs-00465927
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