Friday, January 11, 2008
Turning the corner into the gallery where Rembrandt's Night Watch hangs in the Rijksmuseum and seeing the picture for the first time must be one of the greatest surprises at any museum anywhere. It is massive. Rembrandt was paid 1,600 guilders for his masterpiece in 1642 (about the same amount a well to do merchant would earn in a year). Just a few years earlier, on February 5, 1637, at an auction in Alkmaar, 70 superb tulip specimens were sold and raised over 90,000 guilders, with a single tulip bulb, Violetten Admirael van Enkhuizen, commanding 5,200 guilders. Mike Dash asked why.
He traced the journey the tulip made from the Tien Shan mountains in Asia through Turkey to Europe and, at least symbolically, back again. He described how the bulbs became prized first by Dutch connoisseurs and later by speculators. He put the legendary tulip speculative mania into context and in doing so, made it easier to understand how speculative manias develop.
One of the great ironies of the tulip mania was that the most coveted bulbs, those which produced flowers with the most striking colors, were diseased. (The mosaic virus was later eradicated and consequently the great colors and unique varieties were lost). He showed how the crash had little impact on the Dutch economy at the time but a lasting influence over the centuries, most notably the continuing importance of the flower trade. He also recounted later flower manias in France, Turkey and most recently in China (spider lilies for RMB 200,000 each in 1985).