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'Tulip Mania' by Jan Brueghel II to be offered at Dorotheum's Old Master Sale on 28 April 2020
Jan Brueghel II (1601 - 1678) Allegory of Tulip Mania, oil on panel, 25.5 x 25.5 cm, estimate € 250,000 - 350,000.

VIENNA.- The Dorotheum’s spring Auction Week will take place at the end of April and will include auctions of Old Master Paintings, 19th-century Paintings, Furniture, Works of Art and Jewellery.

A painting entitled ‘An Allegory of Tulip Mania’ is one of the highlights of the Old Master Paintings sale on 28th April, along with works by Pieter Coecke van Aelst, Jusepe de Ribera, Massimo Stanzione, Lavinia Fontana and Anthony van Dyck. This satirical painting, by Jan Brueghel the Younger, caricatures the so-called “tulip mania“, a frenzy which overwhelmed the Netherlands in the 17th century, leading to the first financial bubble in history. The artist depicts misguided burghers as richly dressed monkeys, spending every penny they have on flowers that will soon be worthless.

In the next issue of DOROTHEUM myART MAGAZINE, Dorotheum expert Damian Brenninkmeyer and Sigmund Oakeshott co-author an article about the background to this timeless painting:

Tulips were first introduced from the Ottoman Empire by a Flemish ambassador in the 16th century, and it was in the botanical garden at Leiden University that they were first seriously cultivated. Nearby Amsterdam was the centre of trade with the East Indies, and here, huge profits were to be made from the import of spices, particularly pepper. By the 1620s it had been discovered that a tulip-specific virus could be introduced in the cultivation of the bulbs which would create the myriad different colours and markings in the varieties of tulip raised in the Netherlands. Their unique contrasting ‘flame’ colourings made the flowers and their bulbshighly desirable for visiting French merchants. As the propagation of tulip bulbs took 7-12 years, supply soon outstripped demand, driving up prices dramatically. Pervading plague and war also meant there was a shortage of labour, inflating wages. Suddenly ordinary citizens had more financial liquidity, allowing for a general increase in market speculation.

The market took off. New varieties of tulips were given exhilarating titles, such as “Admirael Backer” or “Alexander the Great” to increase their attraction, and their value soared. Contracts for these tulips, which were yet to be grown, were traded and then re-sold in taverns several times over, without buyer or seller ever touching a flower. Prices sky-rocketed, until, in the February of 1636, in plague-stricken Haarlem, no buyers turned up at a routine tavern auction. As the word spread, the value of the contracts for tulip bulbs completely collapsed, and, so the moralising pamphlets and paintings would have us believe, many people were utterly ruined.

Jan Brueghel the Younger’s painting also represents another story. In the days in which his grandfather, Pieter Brueghel the Elder, was the most celebrated painter in the Spanish-ruled Low Countries, the major financial centre in the region was the Brueghels’ native city of Antwerp. As the Dutch fought for independence from Spain however, they blockaded the Scheldt River, cutting Antwerp off from the sea, thus allowing Amsterdam to steal Antwerp’s crown as the major trade and banking centre in Northern Europe. For the citizens of Antwerp, envious of Amsterdam’s swaggering wealth, there was perhaps an element of schadenfreude in poking fun at Holland's unfortunates, apparently bankrupting themselves over Tulip Mania.

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