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In 1635, a tulip bulb market which had been buoyant for some time, really began to take off, ramping up prices as never before.  Word got round and all sorts of people started jumping on the bandwagon; craftsmen and tradesmen who knew little or nothing about tulips, piled in, hoping to make a fast buck.  At one of the main bulb auctions in Alkmaar, prices tripled within a week.  Most contracts were for bulbs in the ground that the bidder had never seen, and one suspects that in some cases didn’t actually exist.  Demand vastly outstripped supply, and through 1635/36 prices continued to rocket.  Commercial judgement gave way to hysteria, and at the height of the frenzy, some speculators even sold businesses and mortgaged houses to buy tulip bulbs.

Early in 1637 at the Alkmaar auctions, one bulb fetched a staggering 5,400 guilders – half a lifetime’s earnings for typical skilled craftsman and enough to buy a house in the most fashionable part of Amsterdam - like swapping a ‘des res’ in Kensington for a tulip bulb.  Most sources say the bulb in question was a sample of ‘Semper Augustus’, but a few claim it was ‘Admiraal Enkhuysen’.

As in every bubble market there were those who were said that it would go on forever, and as always, they were wrong - spectacularly wrong in this case.  Eventually and inevitably, sanity broke out.  On 3rd. February 1637 the bubble burst and the market crashed, taking much of the Dutch economy with it.  In the chaos that followed, the law courts became clogged with disputes as buyers tried to escape from their contracts, and eventually the authorities stepped in and announced that the courts would hear no more cases concerning tulip contracts, effectively drawing a line under the entire episode.  Academic economists still argue to the present day whether this was the right course of action or not.

Of course the lesson wasn’t learned, or if it was, it was soon forgotten.  A hundred years later, again in Holland, another bubble market started to develop, this time in hyacinth bulbs, but the authorities stepped in at an early stage and stopped it.

In the immediate aftermath of the Tulip Mania a reaction set in, and many developed a deep loathing for the tulip (probably those who had lost their shirts when the market crashed).  This too passed, and among specialist growers, some broken varieties continued to fetch exorbitant prices.  In the 1640s ‘Semper Augustus’ was still changing hands at 1,200 guilders; although as there were only thought to have been around a dozen bulbs in existence, it could be argued that this represented a genuine rarity value.  A picture of ‘Semper Augustus’ by an anonymous Dutch artist survives as an illustration in a pamphlet (publ. 1641) called the ‘Great Tulip Book’ (Fig. 2).

The ‘broken’, virus infected tulips, which had become the focus of so much attention, later became known as ‘Rembrandt’ tulips in honour of the 17th. century Dutch master (who was born in 1606, and would therefore have lived through the tulip mania).  Although there is no evidence that Rembrandt was particularly interested in tulips or ever painted them – perhaps ‘Bosschaert’ tulips would have been a more appropriate name.

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