Science - May 10, 2012

The most famous book in Wageningen

The tulip catalogue is the library's showpiece and Queen Beatrix's favourite work. What is more, it is a reminder of the first economic bubble. 'A single tulip bulb could cost you fifty times your annual salary.'

The library was really still closed when Queen Beatrix officially opened the Forum teaching building in 2007, but it was opened up briefly on her Majesty's request. For Beatrix wanted to see the Tulip Book by Pieter Cos.
Actually, it is not really a book, it is a plant-breeding catalogue consisting of a collection of watercolours painted in 1637 on the orders of the florist P. Cos. The price of a bulb was determined by weight, shape of the flower, colour and stripes (a sign of disease but they did not realize that then!). When the trade reached its peak, bulbs were being sold for ten thousand guilders - about fifty times the average annual salary at that time.
The tulip book dates from the period when the combination of two Dutch specialties, horticulture and trade, led to the notorious tulip bubble, or tulip fever. Wageningen UR Library curator Liesbeth Missel is a specialist in tulip fever. Missel: 'You could not tell from a bulb what kind of flower it was going to produce but a catalogue would let you trade all year round. There would be a piece of paper saying I would be delivering certain tulip bulbs next spring. That piece of paper would then be traded rather than the bulb itself.' In other words, trade in derivatives.
The house of cards collapsed in 1637. Many people had invested thousands of guilders in bulbs that were suddenly worth nothing. The Tulip Fever episode is the first well-documented economic bubble in world history.
Temporarily on display
This is not the only tulip book that has survived from the seventeenth century but what makes the Cos catalogue unusual is that it contains the names of the tulips and even the prices they reached at auction. The university bought the book in 1948 for 950 guilders at an auction of the library belonging to the Krelage family in Haarlem, bulb growers for three generations. The book is so valuable that special safety protocols have been designed for it. For instance, if there is a serious fire alarm in Forum, the book will be carried speedily to a secret location.
For the next two months, you do not need to be a member of the Dutch royal family to view the tulip catalogue. The book is on display to staff and students for the first time as part of the Tulips through the Ages exhibition. On view until 29 June in the Special Collections department, entrance via the library.

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