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Tulip Portraits with Anna and Everett

Martha Stewart Living Television

Today, author Anna Pavord and Everett Fahy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art discuss Holland's 17th-century tulip mania and the jewel-like sketches and paintings it inspired.

The early-16th century was a time of plenty in Holland, where the wealth and riches of the Dutch East India Company had filtered down to merchants, farmers, and artisans. Into this golden age of abundance arrived a mysterious flower bulb from the Middle East. The bulb, which resembled an onion, soon produced the glorious tulip -- one of the most alluring flowers the Dutch had ever seen.

The graceful bloom spurred a frenzy of buying, selling, and bidding. In fact, in 1637, when a well-off merchant might have taken home 3,000 guilders, a single tulip bulb was purchased for 10,000 guilders. The most valuable were "broken" tulips, whose petals were marked by feathery white stripes. Ironically, these tulip bulbs, which sold for such dear sums, were infected by a virus that created the striking patterns on the petals, but also made the bulbs sterile.

Although the Dutch tulip craze turned out to be a flimsy bubble that popped when speculators stopped paying exorbitant prices, by that time the tulip had been introduced to the Western world, where it would be cherished for centuries to come.

For more information, visit Metropolitan Museum of Art.

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