Apr 29, 2016
This tulip, with its "broken" coloration of creamy white petals edged in deep crimson, attracted the highest price ever bid for a tulip bulb during Holland's seventeenth-century frenzy of speculation in tulips.
In a January 1637 auction, an anonymous bidder was willing to spend 5,500 florins for a single Semper Augustus bulb, enough money to buy a large house on a fashionable canal in Amsterdam and more than five times the amount of Rembrandt's commission for his masterpiece The Night Watch. The Semper Augustus tulips, widely illustrated at the time as exemplars of the pinnacle of floral beauty, were maddeningly rare because a mysterious collector was thought to be hoarding the bulbs.
The collector rejected the high bid at this auction, and within a month, the tulip bubble had collapsed. It is not known what happened to the Semper Augustus, which vanished long ago from the tulip world. Quite possibly, the variety died out because of infection with a virus spread by aphids, which we now know accounts for broken color patterns in tulips but also tends to weaken their growth over multiple generations.
Like so much else in life, whether associated with flowers or with finance, it was nice while it lasted.