PLUS ÇA CHANGE . . . As we witness the popping of an asset bubble inflated by a smooth-talking quant with big hair, it’s nice to be reminded that we’ve been here before. Slightly more than three hundred years ago, having fled a murder conviction in England and gambled his way through Europe, roguish Scot and innovative economist John Law arrived in France with, shall we say, disruptive ideas regarding currency. A biographer of the period described him as “handsome, tall, with a good Address, and . . . a particular Talent of pleasing the Ladies”: I picture Law as a young, Bond-era Sean Connery in a Louis XIV wig. In one ca. 1715–20 portrait attributed to Alexis Simon Belle, he resembles Tom Hiddleston. So not exactly Sam Bankman-Fried, but with a similar knack for conjuring confidence in coin substitutes. Despite being born to a family of goldsmiths, Law was an early advocate of paper banknotes as a replacement for metallic money, and the dire state of France’s economy in the wake of decades of wars presented him with an opportunity to put his “System,” as he called it, into practice.
In 1716, with the approval of Philippe II, Duke of Orléans—France’s regent until child king Louis XV was of age—Law established a private bank to issue paper currency. He assumed control of the Company of the West, which held a monopoly on commerce in France’s Louisiana colony, at the time stretching from the Mississippi Delta to the Great Lakes, and sold its shares in exchange for government bonds, thereby reducing the national debt. Within a few years, Law’s bank was nationalized by the crown; the Company of the West became the Company of the Indies (or Mississippi Company), its interests fused with the new royal bank’s (stock shares and banknotes were interchangeable); an unprecedented stock mania swept the country; and Law was appointed controller general of finance. It was as if Jeff Bezos had persuaded the US government to convert the entire national debt into Amazon stock and make him treasury secretary and Federal Reserve chair.
Meanwhile, in England, the South Sea Company was founded in 1711 in anticipation of being granted an unspeakable 1713 contract (previously held by other European countries) to supply Spanish colonies of South America with enslaved peoples of Africa. Given a monopoly on English trade with the region by Parliament and formed to reduce the national debt via conversion to company stock, the unscrupulous, fraudulently marketed operation and its hideously corrupt abettors in government (including lords, MPs, and the Chancellor of the Exchequer) made Law’s Mississippi Company seem semi-legitimate by comparison. As in France, exponential increases in share prices led by the end of the decade to a nationwide frenzy of stock speculation. The investment contagion spread to the Netherlands around this time, though some cities, including Amsterdam, forbade participation in the market.
The exhibition resides in a long hallway on the library’s third floor, bookended by the majestic McGraw Rotunda on one end and a toilet on the other, a fitting representation of the bubbles’ passage of gold into shit.
Needless to say, this all came crashing down in late 1720. Known to history as the Mississippi and South Sea Bubbles, these vanity bonfires and the copious graphic and textual commentary they generated are the subject of “Fortune and Folly in 1720,” an exhibition in the Rayner Special Collections Wing of the New York Public Library. Curated by Nina L. Dubin, Meredith Martin, and Madeleine C. Viljoen, authors of the sumptuous companion book Meltdown! Picturing the World’s First Bubble Economy (Harvey Miller Publishers, 2020), which goes well beyond a catalogue, the exhibition resides in a long hallway on the third floor, bookended by the majestic McGraw Rotunda on one end and a toilet on the other, a fitting representation of the aforementioned bubbles’ passage of gold into shit. Augmented by notable contributions from the library’s Rare Book and Manuscripts and Archives divisions, the show consists primarily of a series of densely detailed, scathingly satirical prints that were bound with zero regard for propriety or copyright into a mass-marketed Dutch scrapbook, almost an early cut-and-paste zine, titled The Great Mirror of Folly. According to Meltdown!, the Mirror was “compiled in late 1720 by an anonymous consortium of Amsterdam-based publishers, and featuring corporate charters and prospectuses, poems, plays, pamphlets, maps, and uncut decks of playing cards . . . (no two copies of which are exactly alike).”
It would be churlish to belabor the paradox of housing an exhibition about the first international financial crash in the grand bibliothèque of the Astors, Lenoxes, Tildens, and Schwarzmans. After all, many of the Mirror-sourced prints were donated by Alexander Maitland, a grandnephew of NYPL forefather James Lenox and a wealthy philanthropist who amassed a nearly obsessive trove of bubble-related documents and correspondence. Nevertheless, the show’s positioning next to the McGraw Rotunda, home to Edward Laning’s mural series “The Story of the Recorded Word,” 1938–42, bears some scrutiny.
Composed of one ceiling and four wall murals, the paintings depict the (d)evolution of written knowledge in stages analogous to the history of currency—from element (Promethean fire) to solid (Moses’s tablets) to paper of degrading quality (medieval linen to wood pulp), culminating in its most ephemeral, untrustworthy form, the newspaper, hawked on street corners by hollering touts and blown into gutters by circling winds. Despite such parallels, the murals’ status as Works Progress Administration commissions makes their proximity to “Fortune and Folly” as jarring as their presence in the building (founded and supported by one-percent wealth). Further incongruities abound. The brightly colored, neo-Renaissance muscularity of the murals clashes with the scratchy, crosshatched fuzziness of most of the Mirror prints, which are predominantly grayscale and closer to R. Crumb than to Chris Ware. At the center of the rotunda floor, a Lucite donation box on an NYPL-branded plinth, partially filled with dollar bills and reminiscent of TV-lottery money-blowing displays, radiates unintended irony.
The etched and engraved Mirror prints, most anonymously produced in 1720 as the crisis unfolded, defy easy description. Characterized by overcrowded miniaturistic detail, multiple layers of allusion, and exuberant intertextuality, they prefigure Surrealism and postmodern sampling/collage—even internet memes. Many are knockoffs, restrikings, recaptionings, parodies, or pastiches of existing works or earlier artists (particularly Bosch, Bruegel, and Jacques Callot), and their deliciously droll titles are as overstuffed as the images they name: Law, Like Another Don Quixote, Sits on Sancho’s Ass, Being Everyone’s Fool; Fancy, the Ruler of the Guild of Smoke-Sellers, Paints Here Mississippi, Which Wastes France’s Treasures; The Defeated Stock-Jobber Seated in the Chair with Jingles, Having Been Ridden Over by the Laureated Horse of Troy; The Dying Bubble-Lord in the Lap of Madame Company.
While the Mirror prints vary widely in style and content, several themes prevail. The buying and selling of stock was derided at the time as the “wind trade,” inspiring countless representations of natural and man-made gusts, bellows pumped, bubbles blown by demons and human “bubblers” alike, and, signifying both gaseous hype and noxious waste, flatulence. Lampooning Law’s “System,” worthless paper—in the form of banknotes, stock shares, debt instruments, or contracts—is another common visual motif, whether blown, dropped, vomited, defecated, or grasped at or clutched by rioting crowds. Used pejoratively throughout the Mirror, wind and paper animate many of its images. Postwar visual analogues include the tarmac tornado of stolen cash at the end of Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing (1956), Abbie Hoffman sending dollars raining onto the New York Stock Exchange’s trading floor in 1967, and Harry Tuttle (Robert De Niro) consumed by reams of flying paperwork in Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (1985).
In Fair of the Wholesale Wind-Peddler, 1720, Law sits on a cloud, a windmill on his head, as he casts “shares full of suffering” from his left hand. Above, a monkey on a tree branch spies another monkey across the frame, balloons attached to each limb, being blown aloft by bellows. Beneath, a trunk full of shares is raided by rats. The Shop of the Stock Boys, Gives Pleasure and Sorrow in Stealing, 1720, depicts a carriage, driven by the goddess of Deceit, carrying Bombario (a clownlike figure symbolizing the bubbles), Satan, and Law (dressed as a harlequin) and cutting through a roiling mob of crazed investors. Satan pumps Law’s ass with bellows, causing him to chunder share certificates onto the desperate masses below. Above, in the clouds, Mercury pleads with Jupiter as Phaethon (Icarus) tumbles to his doom. Perhaps the most popular print, Monument Dedicated to Posterity in Memory of the Incredible Folly of 1720 (Bernard Picart, two versions, 1720; Bernard Baron, English variation, 1721), shows a chariot, this one driven by the goddess of Folly and pulled by Indigenous people, crushing shareholders and ledger books under its wheel while the surrounding crowd frantically gossips, fights, and strikes deals. Floating above the scene, Satan blows bubbles as Fame trumpets hype and Fortuna drops banknotes, shares, and other worthless paper, prefiguring ticker-tape parades.
Among the enduring legacies of the bubbles are the terms nouveau riche and millionaire, wallets, and fractional reserve banking. In the events’ immediate wake, our perennial belief in the collective hallucination of money and its prophets, from John Law to SBF, was summed up for the ages by Montesquieu in 1721: “Trust me, abandon the country of base metals and come into the empire of the imagination . . . if you have creditors, go and pay them with what you have imagined, and tell them to imagine in their turn.” Sounds a bit like a crypto exchange.
Andrew Hultkrans is the author of Forever Changes (Bloomsbury 33 1/3, 2003).