Greed is part of human nature and, from time to time, this is exploited in schemes that promise enormous wealth - and thus status. In recent times we’ve had explosions in the value of bitcoin, and giddy prices paid for shares of profitless technology companies in the dotcom boom of the late 1990s. In 1969, there was large-scale speculation in a mining company called Poseidon, rumoured to have struck it rich; and going much further back, we had the South Sea Bubble, when a raft of speculative investments rose spectacularly in value. All were followed by slumps and, while some people made large amounts of money by timing the market, many who were sucked in to the speculation lost a large part of their investment.
There are many other examples, but perhaps the oddest was the huge prices paid for certain types of tulips in Holland in the early 17th Century. Anna Pavord’s excellent book The Tulip describes what happened in the speculation and this is a brief excerpt :
..tulip prices continued to rise inexorably. By 1623 the fabled flower “Semper Augustus” was already selling for 1,000 florins a bulb (the average income was about 150 florins).. ..”Semper Augustus” held its price over a long period.. ..In 1624 only twelve bulbs of the variety were known to exist, valued at 1,200 florins each; by 1625 the asking price had more than doubled. By 1633 though, estimates of 5,500 florins were floating round each bulb, almost doubling to 10,000 florins at the height of the tulipomania. The highest price ever asked for “Semper Augustus” was.. ..more than the cost of the most expensive houses on the canals at the centre of Amsterdam
“Semper Augustus” (see above) was prized for its “breaking” (the patterns of many types on an otherwise single-coloured bloom) that resulted from the action of a virus that could not be transmitted by seed, but only from offsets produced after flowering. These tulips were thus limited in numbers, as propagation took time, and there was also no guarantee that the flower produced in the next generation would be the same as the parent, as the expression of the virus attack could vary.
All was therefore set for exploitation by speculators and that is what is shown in the painting by Jan Brueghel the Younger, where humans have been replaced by monkeys. The use of monkeys to represent humans was made popular by Jan Brueghel the Younger’s grandfather, the innovative, and justly famous, Pieter Bruegel the Elder (shifts in the spelling of their name were used by members of the family) in a painting entitled Two Monkeys. Jan’s father, Jan Breughel the Elder also painted Feasting Monkeys, so he would have known about this satirical device. It became popular among Flemish painters of the time and led to the Singeries of early 18th Century France, that featured monkeys in a range of settings . Monkeys were not depicted because of any allusion to human evolution; more to their usefulness as symbols of exaggerated human behaviour.
Jan Brueghel the Younger’s painting Satire on Tulip Mania, from the collection of the Frans Hals Museum (see above and  for a larger-scale version), depicts the fate of various players involved in tulipomania. Flowering tulips, including examples of “Semper Augustus”, are displayed in front of a large mansion, where the owners are enjoying the high life, supported by the vast sums of money being paid for tulips. A sale is being prepared for a noble monkey who is determined not to be left out, and the price to be paid is being negotiated, agreed, and formalised by a contract. To the right of the picture we see gamblers (tulipomania was a form of gambling), a monkey urinating on tulips (clearly ones that were not deemed good enough after they had been purchased – the monkey holds a contract note), and other monkeys being led into a courtroom dock (for getting into debt by speculating in tulips). In the background, it appears that a duel is being fought, and a lonely funeral procession moves away in the distance. Both indicate the folly of being drawn into such a strange competition for status.
As satire, the painting reminds us of some of the works painted by Hogarth to point out the mores of society. Tulipomania was certainly a strange event, but the desire to become rich, and having possessions that convey status, is always with us. It’s just that sometimes these desires get out of control and we lose our powers of reasoning.
 Anna Pavord (1999) The Tulip. London, Bloomsbury Publishing.