Chinese bubble plates

10-12 min. reading time - Collectables from the first international stock market crisis

Uit de serie Connecting Objects

07-04-2022 - Suzanne Kooloos

The Dutch Republic is often described as a frontrunner in pamphleteering and book production in the 17th and early 18th century. So it perhaps no surprise that the Dutch produced a significant amount of paper objects during the first international stock market crisis of 1720. But what is currently overlooked, is that it was also an important producer of collectables of the decorative arts. What could such objects look like?


On a Chinese porcelain plate, produced between 1725-1749, a harlequin is asking the viewer for response. His question is: “Who wants to speculate on Utrecht or New Amsterdam?” (New Amsterdam was a satirical comment, which will be explained later). This figure, known from the originally Italian theatrical genre of commedia dell’arte, is theatrically posed atop a chequered stage and under a ceiling, carries his typical stick and is pointing to the coat of arms of Utrecht.

And this harlequin is not alone: the porcelain plate is part of a series of six with similar commedia dell’arte characters, all depicting scenes of financial speculation, or “wind trade” (windhandel), as financial speculation was polemically called.


In England and France, the so called South Sea and Mississippi Bubbles are memorable crisis events. These bubbles are named after national joint-stock companies, which were founded to reduce governments debts, but resulted in intense speculation and a crash. In the Dutch Republic there were also many proposals for new joint-stock companies, a phenomenon which was compared to the tulip mania of 1637 and intensely discussed at the time. In 1720, the “Europische Mercurius”, a newspaper magazine, reported: “Many bookshops looked as if they were showing a sketch of the Hof-Zaal (Court Hall) in The Hague, decorated with pennants and flags, because of the many published prints and cartoons that blew around and on doors”. (“Veele boekwinkels zagen ‘er door de menigvuldige uytgekome Gedigten en Spotprenten, die om en aan de deuren woeyen, uyt, als of ze een schets van de met wimpels en vlaggen gestoffeerde Haagse Hof-Zaal wilden vertoonen.”).

Pamphlets, engravings and play texts in the Rijksmuseum collection indeed testify to the overwhelming attention for the bubbles. Some editions of the folium-sized book “Het Groote Tafereel der Dwaasheid” (literal translation: “The Great Scene of Folly”), a collection of many of these materials, counted as much as 74 engravings. These convincing satires have contributed to a longstanding narrative of a severe financial crisis in the Dutch Republic, but only a few of the new Dutch joint-stock companies became operational, and these did cause any trouble. According to financial historians, this event was thus not a financial crisis 1. However, the Dutch Republic was an important producer of objects which depicted, satirized or explained this event. These “bubble objects”, gave shape to an international crisis experience.

With this rich collection of paper objects, it is easy to overlook that there are also other kinds of bubble objects in the collections of the Rijksmuseum. The Rijksmuseum collection includes the aforementioned series of Chinese porcelain plates, a Japanese bottle, glasses and satirical medals, while other collections also include objects such a tobacco box (The Met Museum, New York) and a tilt-top table (The Cabildo, Louisiana State Museum). Objects are thus very diverse, and information on who ordered or owned these objects is usually not available, but it is safe to say that many can be characterised as theatrical.


It is not a coincidence that the plates depict a theatre character – the theatre and its metaphors were used abundantly to give meaning to financial speculation. The set of six plates specifically refer to the commedia dell’arte, a theatre genre which originated in Italy and was based on stock characters and improvisations. Although it might be tempting to think that Italian actors flocked the streets at Amsterdam fairs, we know this was not the case. 2 Rather, one would find the characters in plays performed in the theatre in Amsterdam. An important example is the wind trade play “Arlequyn Actionist” by Pieter Langendijk, which was performed ten times during the bubbles of 1720. What made the characters of the commedia dell’arte, and this genre, so suitable to portray the wind trade?

Let’s take a closer look at a part of the plot of Langendijk’s Arlequyn Actionist. The play opens with Kapitano, who is getting his ships ready. Instead of useful products, he intends to ship paper, because, as he explains, it is the most valuable good at this time. This is already a satirical critique on the share trade: how could a piece of paper suddenly have more value than something you can eat, for example? Arlequyn also fills a box, for which he is paid in shares. But when the box breaks, it turns out that Arlequyn has pulled off a magic trick and that there are only bladders and bowels (so: wind) inside. To escape the anger of Kapitano, Arlequyn dresses up as Mercurius, the god of merchants and trade. A masquerade which is uncovered later in the play.

These events are all very typical for commedia dell’arte, which is a genre of magical transformation, masquerade and spectacle—excellent characteristics to criticise the share trade and the folly that comes with it. We also see this in the end of the play, when Arlequyn asks for help in digging the Stichtse channel, a well-known and ridiculed project at the time. The plan was to dig a canal from Utrecht to the sea—the reason why the earlier mentioned Chinese plate refers to the city of Utrecht as “new Amsterdam”.


Of course, not everyone who encountered the plates would have been aware of the full plot of Arlequyn Actionist. Nonetheless, the connection between theatre and the windhandel was very strong, and a harlequin performing the share trade was a clear statement. Collectables not only remind us of the connection between theatre and financial speculation, but also of the ways in which the Republic was part of international trading networks. While Delftware was produced close by (and in fact, there are also Delftware bubble plates), for these porcelain plates a print had to be sent to China, the order given to factory via a middleman, which then had to adequately understood, produced and shipped back the long distance to the Dutch Republic. This results in a strong contrast between the plates as an object of trade, and the supposedly unsuccessful trade they are criticizing.

Another, perhaps more playful aspect, is the ordering of the plates. The series of six all depict different scenes, from “won 50% on Delft” (“50% op Delft gewonnen”), to “Suddenly lost all my shares”) (“Pardi al myn Actien kwyt”), portraying both situations of economical gain and loss. As there is no numbering, the owner could order the plates as desired, and end with “away foolish shareholders” (“weg gekke Actionisten”) or with “Suddenly lost all my shares” – a completely different story. The plates thus allowed (and still allow) to choose your own narrative, and discuss different aspects of this event.


Suzanne Kooloos is a Andrew W. Mellon Fellow and a PhD candidate at the University of Amsterdam. She works on the connection between theatre and financial speculation in the early modern period.


To cite this article please use the following citation: Kooloos, Suzanne. Chinese bubble plates: Collectables from the first international stock market crisis. Published 13/04/2022. Rijksmuseum Amsterdam, Stories: Connecting Objects, [URL], last visited: [MM/DD/YY].

  • Gelderblom, Oscar, and Joost Jonker. 2013. “Mirroring Different Follies: The Character of the 1720 Bubble in the Dutch Republic.” In The Great Mirror of Folly: Finance, Culture, and the Crash of 1720, edited by William M Goetzmann, Catherine Labio, K G Rouwenhorst, and Timothy G Young, 121–39. New Haven: Yale University Press.

  • Sierman, Barbara. 1990. “‘Ten Profyte van Het Gemeen’: Kermis in de Achttiende Eeuw.” Documentatieblad Werkgroep Achttiende Eeuw 7: 134–40