CHAPTER 13

Bust

The great crash in tulip prices began in Haarlem on the first Tuesday of that February, when a group of florists gathered to buy and sell as usual in one of the city’s tavern colleges.

As was customary, an established member of the college began the day’s trading by testing the state of the market; he offered a pound of Witte Croonen or Switsers for sale. The florist asked a fair price—1,250 guilders—for the bulbs, and in the normal course of events he would have found several eager buyers. Slates and chalk would have been distributed, the tulips would have been knocked down to the highest bidder, and the rest of the day’s trading would have continued in its usual frenzied way. On this day, however, there were no bidders for the bulbs at 1,250 guilders. The auctioneer offered them again, this time cutting the price to 1,100 guilders. Still there was no interest. Desperately now, he offered his bulbs for a third time, dropping his price to a risible thousand guilders the pound. Once again there were no bids.

It is easy to imagine the awkward silence that must have descended upon the group of florists hunched around their table in the tavern as this awful, farcical auction ran its course: the half-drunk tankards of beer hanging in midair, partway to the lips of drinkers who suddenly understood the importance of what was happening in front of them; the nervous glances exchanged by traders who had not the slightest idea what to do next or how they were supposed to react. The silence must have lingered for a second or two and then been broken by a swelling hubbub of anxious conversation as bedlam enveloped the college and every florist present started talking at once.

In all likelihood every one of the traders present had paid similar prices for similar bulbs within the past few days in anticipation of selling again for another handsome profit. Now, in a matter of no more than a minute or so, their assumptions had been shattered. The ugly question of what would become of the bulb trade had been raised. Plainly it would have been impossible to continue with the normal business of the day. Perhaps some brief attempt was made to sell other bulbs, without success, but the college must have suspended trading almost immediately, and in the general confusion one or two of the assembled company no doubt ran to inform their friends and family of what had occurred. In no time all the colleges in Haarlem would have heard the news, and every florist in the town and beyond the walls would have been gripped by a simple impulse: Sell.

It took only a few days for the panic to spread through the rest of the United Provinces. In college after college and in town after town, desperate florists discovered that flowers that had been worth thousands of guilders only a day or two before now could not be sold for any price. A few dealers kept their heads and tried to stimulate renewed interest by organizing mock auctions or offering bulbs at huge discounts, but they were ignored. In most places the tavern trade crashed so completely that it was not even a question of prices falling to a quarter or a tenth of what they had been when the mania was at its peak. The market for tulips simply ceased to exist.

Many florists must have found themselves in the same plight as Gaergoedt, the weaver described by the author of the Samenspraecken. Caught out by the unexpected fall in prices, Gaergoedt’s first reaction is to go out to buy and sell again. He retains some of his old confidence, telling his friend Waermondt: “Flora may be ill, but she will not die.” While his wife, Christijntje, bewails her husband’s decision to sell off his loom and all his weaving tools, Gaergoedt returns to the colleges, only to find that the market really has collapsed and all trading has come to a halt. Unable to find a single buyer for his bulbs, and conscious of the many debts he has incurred in buying tulips and laying out a garden, the hapless weaver asks his friend what he should do. Waermondt’s advice is brutally straightforward: The tulip trade is dead, he says, there is no chance of reviving it, and the florists have no option but to return to their old jobs and their proper stations. The best they can hope for is to be given the opportunity to discharge their debts honorably.

Confidence is everything in a booming market, but the fact that the tulip trade collapsed so rapidly suggests that some of the less sanguine florists must have been feeling uneasy about the continual escalation of bulb prices a few days before the crash. The mania took place before the introduction of daily newspapers, so there is no way of being certain of the sequence of events in the final week of January and the first few days of February, but it is unlikely that bulb dealing ceased completely and without warning simply because of one failed auction in a single Haarlem college. Trading must surely have become more and more difficult everywhere in Holland over the previous week or so; auctioneers would have found it harder and harder to push prices up at the old rapid rate, some varieties would have peaked in value, and the number of dealers anxious to sell would have begun to outnumber those still willing to buy. In the day or two before the fateful meeting at Haarlem, it is not too fanciful to suppose that a general feeling of unease and trepidation must have descended upon the colleges of Haarlem and Amsterdam like a clammy autumn fog rolling in off the Zuider Zee. The tulip traders had been waiting for something to happen, and now it had.

Certainly rumors that the markets could rise no higher were already in the air before February 3, and some buyers were no longer confident that their investments would yield a profit. As early as the end of December, an apothecary and bulb grower named Henricus Munting, who lived in the town of Groningen, was able to complete a lucrative deal to sell a handful of his tulips for seven thousand guilders to a man from Alkmaar only by promising his nervous customer that if prices fell before the summer of 1637, he could cancel the purchase and pay no more than 10 percent of the agreed price. Then, two days before the crash, at a dinner party held at Pieter Wynants’s house in Haarlem, Pieter’s younger brother Henrik tried to badger one of the guests into buying a pound of Switsers for 1,350 guilders. Henrik’s target was a rich widow named Geertruyt Schoudt, but she demurred and could not be persuaded to buy. It was only when another dinner guest, a local dyer named Jacob de Block, offered to guarantee the price for eight days that Schoudt gave way and bought the bulbs.

The collapse of the tulip trade after February 3 was so complete that virtually no information has survived concerning the sort of prices paid for bulbs in the spring of 1637. It would appear that the only buyers left in the market were the connoisseurs and perhaps a few rich florists who were not entirely dependent on flowers for their wealth, and that only the rarest and most superbly fine varieties had any chance at all of being sold. According to one contemporary, a tulip that had been worth 5,000 guilders before the crash was sold later for only 50 guilders. In May a bed of tulips that would have fetched 600 to 1,000 guilders in January is said to have changed hands for 6 guilders, and a selection of bulbs worth about 400 guilders during the boom was sold for a mere 22 guilders one stuiver. These prices suggest that where tulips could be sold at all, they fetched, at best, just over 5 percent of their old values, and often 1 percent or less. There can be no doubt, then, that this was a truly spectacular crash. Even if it was not more or less instantaneous in each of the towns affected by the mania—and it probably was—the collapse of the tulip trade certainly cannot have taken more than three or four months. It was far more rapid and complete than history’s most notorious financial disaster, the Wall Street Crash of 1929 and the Great Depression that followed it. In that case it took more than two years for share prices to fall to a low, and even then they retained 20 percent of their old value.

Amid all the confusion few florists seem to have understood exactly why the bulb trade had collapsed in such spectacular fashion. Yet in retrospect it is not difficult to see that the crash was all but inevitable. Like a sun, tulip mania burned brightly and steadily while there was still fuel to feed it in the shape of a steady supply of bulbs. But during the winter of 1636–37 demand for tulips comprehensively outstripped supply, and the mania then began, in effect, to consume everything around it. Pound goods and unicolored tulips were pressed into circulation, and in a market where even the hitherto despised Switsers and Witte Croonen were selling for more than a thousand guilders a pound, the florists of Holland were dealing every last bulb they could lay their hands on.

Once even these vodderij were being traded, there were no longer any new varieties coming onto the market at affordable prices. The absence of cheap bulbs meant, in turn, that it was all but impossible for more novice florists to enter the market, for who could afford to do so if the very cheapest lots were selling for dozens or even hundreds of guilders? A handful of the existing traders were even selling up and trying to take their profits, so a shrinking group of florists, possessed of only a limited amount of capital, were somehow sustaining a constant rapid rise in prices. Sooner or later even those who still believed the trade was fundamentally healthy would become unable to afford the next price rise and hesitate to commit themselves. Thus, by the beginning of February, money and bulbs—the twin fuels of the flower mania—were both exhausted. And like a sun that has burned the last of its fuel, the tulip mania “went supernova” in a final, frenzied burst of trading before collapsing in on itself.

That was the reason for the crash, but not for the sheer extent of the collapse in prices. The explanation for that catastrophe lies in the extraordinary rapidity with which bulbs had passed from one hand to another at the height of the boom. In most bull markets there are also bears, who hold back capital and wait for prices to fall so they can buy valuable stocks cheaply. But the majority of the tulips that were traded in the last month or two of the mania—the pound goods and some of the varieties sold by the thousand aces—were literally worthless. There was no demand for them, no connoisseur would plant them, and they had value only in the eyes of the people who had traded them. There was nothing there for a bear trader to exploit.

Worse, it would appear that tulip mania had sucked in everyone it touched in the tavern colleges. Few florists had had much capital to spare when they entered the market, and almost none were not now caught in one or more of the complex chains of obligation that the bulb trade had created. A large number had sold or mortgaged their few possessions to finance their dealings in the bulb market. Those who were in this desperate position faced not merely loss but ruin; and in the seventeenth century, even in the Dutch Republic, ruin meant not just destitution but consignment to the workhouse or even starvation and an early death. The last thing any of these people wanted to do was bid for another tulip. Every florist was a seller now.

That is not to say that prices fell instantly and simultaneously throughout the United Provinces. Some florists did move about from town to town, but most did not, so news took a day or two to travel. And in any case the Dutch bulb trade was really a number of separate markets, one in each of the towns affected by the tulip mania. Prices in one city lagged behind those in another; the florists traded different bulbs; the tulip traders who met in one tavern were subtly different from those who made up every other college in the republic.

Thus, while the tulip trade was in ruin in Haarlem, it continued to flourish briefly elsewhere. In Amsterdam—where news of the disaster in Haarlem must have reached the colleges by Wednesday—it was still strong on Friday, February 6, when a pound of Switsers was sold for 1,065 guilders in the college of a tavern called The Mennonite Wedding. But the trade in Amsterdam seems to have approached a similar crisis point the next day, February 7, when a florist named Joost van Cuyck bid eleven hundred guilders for another pound of the ubiquitous Switsers owned by Andries de Bosscher. Van Cuyck seems to have had second thoughts about the wisdom of this purchase, since he asked de Bosscher to guarantee him that the price would not fall. De Bosscher produced a colleague named Pieter van de Cruys, who was prepared to promise him twelve hundred guilders for the bulbs, but even this did not entirely satisfy van Cuyck. He seems to have had doubts that van de Cruys had the means to make good his guarantee, and so on February 11 he went with de Bosscher to a local notary to put the whole agreement down in writing and make it legally binding. That must mean the deal was still alive eight days after Haarlem’s florists had been unable to sell pound goods at one thousand guilders a pound, and that the trade in Amsterdam survived for at least a week after the initial crash. Nevertheless, van Cuyck’s evident concern suggests that once the news from Haarlem had sunk in, trepidation quickly began to undermine confidence in the surviving centers of the tulip trade.

The same thing happened to the south, where lucrative trades were still being made in The Hague on February 4. One that we know about involved Jan van Goyen, a well-known artist who was the most influential painter of landscapes in the whole of the UnitedProvinces. Van Goyen was the son of a shoemaker, and his success as an artist had brought him a prosperity he could hardly have imagined in his youth. His father, a keen amateur artist who was at least affluent enough to own his own house, had suffered from fits of insanity and eventually had to be confined to the asylum at Leiden, leaving Jan to put himself through an apprenticeship with the Haarlem master Esaias van de Velde and make a name for himself with his paintings of sand dunes and river scenes. Although never really wealthy, he used the money that he earned to speculate in property and then in tulips, buying ten bulbs from Albert van Ravensteyn, the burgomaster of The Hague, on January 27, 1637, and then forty more eight days later for the combined sum of 912 guilders and two of his own paintings. The latter deal, agreed the day after the crash in Haarlem, was by far the bigger, being worth a total of 858 guilders. But shortly after the painter had agreed to buy the flowers, the market in The Hague slumped too, and van Goyen soon found himself in desperate financial difficulty.

The desperation of the bulb dealers was exacerbated by the fact that the great majority of florists had participated, like Gaergoedt, in the windhandel, and when the market collapsed, they still remained liable to fulfill the futures contracts they had agreed to. Practically every trader had put down deposits on tulips that were now worthless yet they would be expected to pay substantial additional sums to complete the purchases when the bulbs were lifted in only a few months’ time. Many had little choice but to default.

The collapse of the tulip trade thus had serious implications even for those who had sold their bulbs before the crash and appeared to have walked away with good profits. Among those affected in this way were the orphans of Wouter Winkel, who found themselves embroiled in at least two legal actions as a result of the Alkmaar auction. One involved a local dealer named Gerrit Amsterdam, who attempted to claim that the Verbeterde Boterman bulb of 563 aces that he had purchased for 263 guilders had turned out to be nothing but a common Boterman, worth far less than he had paid. The other concerned Willem Lourisz., a florist from Heemskerk, just outside Haarlem. He had bid 512 guilders for a bulb of a Rosen variety called Anvers Vestus, the money to be paid when the tulip had flowered satisfactorily. A year and a half after the auction, Lourisz. still had not discharged his debt, and Jacob van der Meer and Jacob van der Gheest, the two regents of the Alkmaar orphanage who acted as guardians of the Winkel children, took him to court for nonpayment. The regents swore that they had invited the florist repeatedly to inspect his flower and settle his debt. Lourisz.’s defense—and it sounds a flimsy one—was that he had made an appointment to meet van der Meer outside the garden where the bulb was growing one morning in May 1637, that the regent had failed to show up, and that after waiting half an hour the florist had left. Van der Meer indignantly countered that there had never been an appointment, that the tulip had flowered magnificently and had been available for inspection for several weeks, and that it should be paid for as agreed.

The position of the growers was a little better than that of the florists. Even after the tavern trade had come to a halt, connoisseurs did continue to pay extraordinary prices for tulips. On March 17 a Haarlem merchant named Dirck Boortens sold a quantity of bulbs including an Admirael Liefkens and a Saeyblom to one Pieter van Welsen for no less than 11,700 guilders. Van Welsen went to inspect his flowers in the middle of April and discovered some of them were in poor condition, so Boortens agreed to knock three hundred guilders off the original price. Van Welsen cannot have been too worried about the collapse of the tulip colleges, for he confirmed that he was still perfectly content to pay the balance of 11,400 guilders and agreed to do so in three installments: 4,000 guilders in June, 3,700 at the end of August, and the remaining 3,700 guilders on the first day of February 1638. This was a private agreement between two genuine flower lovers who had probably never bothered themselves with the tulip mania going on around them and who could well afford the fantastic luxury of spending ten thousand guilders or more on plants that would be enjoyed for only a few weeks each year. Among the more affluent and high-class tulip traders, there were still occasional signs of optimism about the state of the market. Jan Quaeckel, the rich Haarlem grower who owned The Golden Grape, traveled to the auction at Alkmaar the day after prices crashed in the colleges of his hometown and still felt confident enough to part with 3,260 guilders for some of Wouter Winkel’s fine bulbs. And in May 1637 Jan Admirael—the fashionable Amsterdam dealer who grew tulips in the garden behind his house on the exclusive Prinsengracht, the Prince’s Canal—agreed to guarantee his customer Paulus de Hooge that he would make at least 20 percent over the next twelve months on any tulips he bought from Admirael’s flower beds.

Yet the collapse of the tavern colleges threatened to bankrupt not just the florists but a substantial number of the bulb farmers too. Any growers who had been tempted, during the mania, to expand their business and sell to florists as well as connoisseurs was affected, and the crisis was serious enough to prompt the professionals to unprecedentedly rapid action. As early as February 7, only four days after the crash in Haarlem, the growers of the provinces of Holland and Utrecht agreed to arrange a general meeting, to be held at Amsterdam, to discuss ways of minimizing the damage caused by the collapse in prices. Even in a country the size of the United Provinces, some of these towns were two days’ journey from each other, so the growers’ reaction was astonishingly rapid. It can only have been the result of the most acute concern about their future.

With the single exception of Rotterdam—whose growers sent a letter agreeing to be bound by the decisions of the majority—each of the dozen towns and districts most closely involved in the tulip trade held their own assemblies to elect representatives to attend this meeting. Most of the big bulb growers, including Francisco da Costa from Vianen, Barent Cardoes and Willem Schonaeus from Haarlem, and François Sweerts from Utrecht, traveled to Amsterdam alongside lesser-known names such as W. J. Sloting of Leiden and Claes Heertgens, who was one of the representatives from the Streeck, a strip of good bulb-growing land that lay between the three West Friesland towns of Hoorn, Enkhuizen, and Medemblik.

The great assembly of growers took place on February 23. By then the tulip trade must have been in utter disarray, because the delegates seem to have wasted little time considering whether there was any way it could be revived. Instead, their discussion centered on ways of minimizing their losses.

In some respects the growers’ problems were nearly as bad as those faced by the florists. The great majority of them had incurred considerable costs over the previous year in buying bulbs and offsets, cultivating their gardens and, quite possibly, expanding their operations to try to meet the sharp rise in demand. Now they were owed huge sums of money by customers who had paid only small deposits and had long since sold the tulips on to other traders. In many cases the rights of ownership had vanished into one of the incredibly long and complex chains of trades and deals created during the mania. If just one of the florists involved in one of these agreements found himself unable to settle his debts, the whole chain would collapse and the growers waiting at one end of it would not have the slightest prospect of receiving the balance owed on their bulbs when payment fell due in June.

All these problems must have been debated during the assembly in Amsterdam. The growers’ solution was to pretend, in essence, that the mania had never happened. As the assembly drew to a close, the majority backed a resolution that held that transactions made before the last planting should still be binding, and that while buyers had the right to cancel any purchase made since November 30, 1636, they should be required to pay 10 percent of the sale price as compensation. The representatives of Amsterdam were the only ones who refused to sign the agreement.

In promoting this compromise the growers were rather cynically attempting to minimize the losses that they faced. The majority of the bulbs that were sold before the end of November, they knew, had been bought by connoisseurs and wealthy dealers who had the means to pay their debts in full. It was only in December and January that poorer florists had flooded into the market as the tulip trade exploded and full-fledged mania took hold. Obtaining payment from these people would be a very different matter, and the resolution agreed at Amsterdam recognized that fact.

In the Samenspraecken Waermondt explains to Gaergoedt how the growers’ plan would work in practice. If a bulb sold originally for 30 guilders had been resold three times, say for 60, 100, and 200 guilders, then the man who had offered 200 guilders had the choice of handing over the money and keeping the flower. If he no longer wanted it, he would have to pay 20 guilders to the man who had sold it to him in order to have their agreement annulled. The right of ownership would then revert to the florist who had bid 100 guilders, and he in turn would have to choose whether to keep the bulb for himself or pay compensation of 10 guilders to the man from whom he had purchased the tulip. Waermondt does not say so, but presumably the growers’ intention was that if any one contract was settled in full, all those beneath it in the chain—including the original sale agreed by the grower—would also be honored. If none of the florists wanted to keep the bulb, possession would revert to the grower, who would receive 10 percent of the sale price as compensation. He then had every right to sell the tulip to another buyer if he could.

The reasons why the growers of Amsterdam declined to ratify this agreement are not known, but it is quite conceivable that they were shocked by the sheer scale of the surrender that their fellow growers were proposing. After all, the bulb farmers had every right, in the eyes of the law, to pursue claims to full payment for their produce. Only sheer pragmatism, the knowledge that it would be a sheer waste of time to pursue hundreds of insolvent debtors through the courts, can have persuaded the majority to voluntarily sign away their right to what must, in many cases, have been thousands of guilders. Ten percent—by which they meant one-tenth of the original sale price, not the final value of the tulips when the mania reached its peak—must have been all most bulb farmers believed they had a chance of recovering from the disaster.

The growers’ problem was that even this modest demand for part payment lacked the force of law. They could ask their customers to consider the compromise, but they could not require them to accept it. And since most florists could not hope to find enough money to cover even one-tenth of their liabilities unless they were paid for the bulbs they in turn had sold to others, there was little prospect of many of them coming to terms with the growers unless they had to. “When my buyer pays me, I will pay you,” Gaergoedt assures a creditor in the Samenspraecken. Then he adds an ominous caveat: “But he is nowhere to be found.”

It was thus evident that the bulb trade’s troubles could not be resolved by the bulb trade alone. Some higher authority would have to rule on who owned the thousands of tulips bought and sold before February 1637—and more importantly, who should pay for them. Whatever compromise was finally proposed, moreover, would need to have the force of law.

The mania had become a problem for the courts. But while the tulip’s case was being heard, the critics of the flower were going to have their say.

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