Anonymous: The Semper Augustus (before 1640)

(Norton Simon Museum, Pasadena, California, USA)

This is a picture of the most expensive tulip sold during the so-called 'Tulip mania'. The 'Tulip mania' is considered  to be the first recorded speculative bubble (or economic bubble) and happened between 1634 and 1637. During this period the prices of tulip bulbs reached extraordinarily high prices and suddenly collapsed. Prices for 1 tulip bulb peaked almost 10 times the annual income of a skilled craftsman (about 300 guilders). Tulips were introduced in the Netherlands in the 16th century and the soil in the Western part of the Netherlands was perfect for growing tulips. Tulips like the one on this drawing especially highly valued. These multicolored tulips are called 'broken tulips' because it is infected by the mosaic virus which breaks its pental color into two or more. Virusses were not known in the 17th century so the professional growers just bound two halves of different tulip bulbs together, hoping it would create a broken tulip (today we use modern technology to make these multicolored tulips). Changes of this happening were not high so the multicolored tulips were very rare which in turn generated a higher price. Furthermore the mosaic virus is severely detrimental to the health of the bulb, reducing its vigour, and making it difficult to propagate. Eventually the bulb will lose its strength and wither to nothing effetively ending the genetic line - something which raised the prices even higher. The Semper Augustus was the most expensive one (it does not exist anymore) - 1 bulb was sold for during this period for 6000 guilders, enough to purchase a grand house on the most fashionable canal in Amsterdam! In 1634 a collection of 40 tulips bulbs were sold for 100,000 guilders and 1 buld of the purple-white Viceroy tulip sold for 3000 guilders. An anonymous writer from Hoorn commected that 3000 guilders for this 1 Viceroy tulip was enough to buy: "two lasts of wheat, Four lasts of rye, Four fat oxen, Eight fat swine, Twelve fat sheep, Two hogsheads of wine, Four tuns of beer, Two tons of butter, 1,000 lb. of cheese, A complete bed, A suit of clothes, A silver drinking cup plus a ship to transport it all!" The 'Tulip mania' suddenly collapsed in february 1637 when buyers refused to show up at a routine bulb auction in Haarlem (probably because there was an outbreak of the bubonic plague). Tulpis however became the fourth leading export product of the Netherlands as early in 1636. Drawing from before 1640.

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