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Semper Augustus

A Rosen, with blood-red flares or flames vividly streaked on a white ground, and flakes and flashes of the same color at the edge of the pedals, Semper Augustus was, by all accounts, an extraordinary flower, and one celebrated at the time for its beauty and rarity. Because Semper Augustus was scarce, it was coveted and because it was desirable, it was expensive. Indeed, by the time the market for tulips collapsed, the number of bulbs probably never was much greater than it had been originally. This rarity was reflected in the price. In 1623, one bulb was sold for 1,000 guilders. Even then, the owner felt cheated when two offsets were discovered after it had been lifted from the ground. The next year, only a dozen examples were said to exist, each of which could have sold for 1,200 guilders. All were owned by one individual, a director of the Dutch East India Company, who refused to part with any of them, realizing that the price would fall if he did not control the market. The following year, 2,000 and then 3,000 guilders were offered for a single bulb, but the owner still could not make up his mind, not wanting to increase the supply and appreciating that even more might be realized if he waited.

In 1633, one Semper Augustus was said to have sold for 5,500 guilders, and in 1637, just before the crash, a price of 10,000 guilders was asked—an exorbitant amount that would have purchased a grand house on the most fashionable canal in Amsterdam, or clothed and fed an entire Dutch family for half a lifetime.

This watercolor is by Pieter Holsteyn the Younger (c.1612-1673) and comes from a tulip or flower book, which were commissioned by wealthy gardeners to record their possessions or used by commercial growers as sales catalogs. Unlike a still life, these portraits are quite plain, in which the flower alone appears against an off-white background. Nor is the bulb depicted, as it would have in a botanical illustration. The name of the flower usually is given and sometimes its price and weight. Curiously, the prices recorded on some portraits were not the ones actually being charged but those of the Alkmaar sale, presumably copied out to please those who owned the same variety of bulb.


Waermondt: I have often wanted to ask you what kind of flower is the Semper Augustus of which I have heard so much?

Gaergoedt: That it is a beautiful flower; one can but see it at the homes of only two people, one in Amsterdam from which it comes, and also here [Haarlem] at the home of one who will not sell for any money; so they are in close hands.

Waermondt: At how much is such a flower estimated?

Gaergoedt: Who shall say? But I will tell you what I have heard about it: about three years ago, it was sold for 2,000 gld., transferred at once at the Bank, with the restriction that the buyer could not sell or alienate it without the consent of him from whom he bought it.

Waermondt: So they might have been worth this winter, say, 3,000 gld.

Gaergoedt: Yes, even 6,000, and possibly more, even if it be a plant of only 200 aces.

Waermondt: The flowers greatly surpass gold and silver.

Gaergoedt: You may say gold and silver, yes, all the pearls and costly stones.

Waermondt: It is true, if you consider their beauty when in existence and take into account by whom the trade is run. But not when you look at their perishability, and consider by whom silver and gold, pearls and stone, and artistic works are esteemed; because the latter are esteemed by great people, the former by common folk.

Second Dialogue between Waermondt and Gaergoedt, Being the Continuation of the Rise and Decline of Flora (1637)

The exorbitant prices quoted for tulips are not always documented or verifiable. Stories, too, of bulbs being mistaken for onions and innocently eaten may be the cautionary tales of the pamphleteer or pulpit. One chronicler, however, does record that a house sold in 1633 for three rare bulbs, the transaction commemorated by three tulips being carved on its façadean exchange presumably between the already wealthy and not the story of a simple farmer imprudently selling his family home.

The highest reliably attested amount paid for a single tulip bulb was for a Violetten Admirael van Enkhuizen (with an offset), which purportedly sold at Alkmaar on February 5, 1637 (at the height of the frenzy) for 5,200 fl. One of approximately seventy rare bulbs that were auctioned, the sale realized almost 53,000 fl, the prices for the different varieties representing in almost every case the highest amounts ever recorded. So high were these figures, in fact, that they were printed on a broadside in wonderment.

But almost simultaneously, the market was collapsing. Two days before, in Haarlem to the south, there had been no bidders for the bulbs that were offered. It marked the end of tulipmania.

  The basic unit of currency in the Dutch Republic was the guilder, denoted by fl (florin), which in 1638 had a gold content of 0.77 grams (0.027 ounces). The Semper Augustus that purportedly sold for 5,500 fl would have had an equivalent value in gold equal to $178,200 (evaluated at $1,200 per ounce) at a time when such purchasing power would have been much greater. Although it is difficult to make meaningful comparisons between monetary values in the Netherlands in the first half of the seventeenth-century and the present, salaries and prices do provide one means. The annual wage of a cloth shearer or carpenter, for example, was about 250 fl; a well-to-do merchant might earn from 1,500 to 3,000 fl. Clusius, while at the University of Leiden, had an annual salary of 750 fl a year, and the fee charged by Rembrandt for his imposing masterpiece The Night Watch (1642) was 1,600 fl.

If compared to contemporary commodity prices in January 1637, a thousand guilders would have bought either 4,651 pounds of figs, 3,448 pounds of almonds, 5,633 pounds of raisins, 370 pounds of cinnamon, 25,491 pounds of rye bread, 13.4 vats of butter, 111 tuns of Bordeaux wine, 5,714 pounds of meat—or a small house in Haarlem. This being said, Goldgar identifies only thirty-seven people who spent more than 400 fl on bulbs, nearly all of whom were wealthy merchants who readily spent even more money in other economic activities. Indeed, the mania for tulips, which seems so irrational now and to others at the time, was simply the value placed upon the bulbs by those who bought and sold them. The madness was in believing that the market would continue to hold for such a luxurious and perishable commodity, one that displayed its beauty only one or two weeks a year.

This watercolor is in the Frans Hals Museum (Haarlem) and dates to 1643.


Tulips were among the first flowers to be given special names, and, in the Netherlands, often were christened after breeders and connoisseurs of the flower, in spite of being designated Admiral (red-striped tulips on a white ground) or General (scarlet striped). The Admirael van Enkhuizen, for example, was named after one of the first towns to have revolted against Spain in the Eighty Years' War (1568-1648) and presumably was where the tulip was bred. Often, growers sought to make their tulips more desirable simply by the names given them. If an Admiral was sought after, then how much more coveted would be an Admirael der Admiraels de Gouda (right), a bulb weighing 224 aasen that sold for 1500 fl.

One chronicler records the price of another exquisitely flamed tulip, the Generael der Generaelen van Gouda, which increased in value by two-thirds in a single twelve-month period, by half in the next sixth months, and then tripled yet again. In just two years (from December 1634 to January 1637), the bulb had increased in value from 100 to 750 guilders.

The connoisseurs of tulips also named them as part of their own identity as collectors and as a means of elevating their status in Dutch society. Indeed, novelty and uniqueness were important considerations in a purchase, and the value of the tulip a measure of self-worth and the desire to be known and remembered, even if the flower itself was ephemeral. The figure in Rembrandt's Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp (1632), for example, is that of Claes Pietersz, who added Tulp to his name from the sign of the tulip on his house.



"O! be some other name:
What's in a name?"

A picture of flowers need not always be allegorical, didactic, or moralizing. It could simply be representational and reflect an objective interest in the natural world, fixing what is transient and preserving what otherwise would fade. Too, it allowed flowers that otherwise would have bloomed at different times of the year to be collected together. Like a collection, the still life itself displayed rarity and beauty, and thereby the possessions, self-worth, and social status of its owner.

The tulips themselves, however, always were the most flamboyant and extravagant, all flames and feathers. So desirable were the rarest tulips that it could cost less to commission a painting of them by one of the most famous artists of the day than to own one or two of the flowers themselves.

This same desire to declare one's worth was evidenced, as well, in the collection of seashells.


This still life (left) by Hans Bollongier (1644), in the Frans Hals Museum (Haarlem), arranges the flowers according to the taste of the time, with the most beautiful or rarest crowning the bouquet, which splays out like a cone. At the top, so heavy as almost to fall over, Semper Augustus is proudly displayed, its petals curling, the petal of another flower already having dropped. Together with the snail crawling across the table, it is a reminder that even the most beautiful object is mutable and eventually will die. Quickly losing its bloom, the flower was an almost obligatory reminder of the brevity and vanitas of life.

Ironically, the very beauty of Semper Augustus is why it no longer exists. Its vivid markings were caused by a tulip-breaking virus (tulip mosaic virus: TMV) that also weakened the bulb, stunting the plant and eventually leading to its extinction. (It is to restrict such a virus that broken bulbs no longer are commercially sold.) Variegated cultivars, however, still can be enjoyed for a fraction of their original cost, as seen in this bouquet. The more moderate climate of northern California permits the blooms to appear as early as mid-March through late April.

The anonymous gouache on paper of Semper Augustus and the detail of Admirael Der Admiraels de Gouda both are from a seventeenth-century tulip book in the Norton Simon Museum (Los Angeles).

References: Tulipomania (1999) by Mike Dash; "Tulipmania" (1989) by Peter M. Garber, The Journal of Political Economy, 97, 535-560; "The Tulip Mania in Holland in the Years 1636 and 1637" (1929) by N. W. Posthumus, Journal of Economic and Business History, 1, 434-466; Tulipmania: Money, Honor, and Knowledge in the Dutch Golden Age (2007) by Anne Goldgar; The Tulip Anthology (2010) edited by Billie Lythberg.

See also Floralia.

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