stylized text that reaeds "Fortune and Folly in 1720" with allegorical figure Fortuna scattering papers above

In 1720, everyday citizens converged on the banking streets of Paris, London, and Amsterdam, speculating in New World trading companies and other maritime ventures. By the close of that year, an unprecedented bull market would culminate in the world’s first international financial crash. Orchestrated by the insolvent governments of France and England, and fueled by illusions of colonial wealth, these investment bonanzas—henceforth known as the Mississippi and South Sea Bubbles—have remained synonymous with the temptations of get-rich-quick schemes and the dangers of herd behavior. Three centuries and many booms and busts later, their imprint is indelible. Not only did the bubbles accelerate the growth of a financial system overflowing with stock shares, newly created banknotes, and other mysterious paper devices imbued with financial alchemy—they also illustrated the power of trust and dread, faith and fear, as drivers of market volatility.

The works on display draw from the collections of The New York Public Library and include a trove of caricatures from a Dutch volume known as The Great Mirror of Folly (Het groote tafereel der dwaasheid). Published as the crisis was unfolding, these prints portray the bewildering forces of modern economic life. Loaded with jokes, often of a scatological nature, The Great Mirror of Folly lifts the curtain on a farcical political theater whose stars include bankers and statesmen—and that’s just for starters.

Offering tragicomic depictions of malevolent traders, hoodwinked investors, and villainous seductresses, the prints hold up a mirror to our own age, with its ever more complex monetary instruments and periodic meltdowns. They also reflect on the intersections between art and finance, reminding us that both are products of human imaginings.

This exhibition is organized by The New York Public Library and curated by Nina Dubin, Meredith Martin, and Madeleine Viljoen.

Preview the exhibition

hand-colored print. a colorful scene with a crowd of people and allegorical figure Fortuna in upper left corner throwing paper in the air over the crowd
Bernard Picart (French, 1673–1733)
“A Monument dedicated to posterity in commemmoration of the incredible folly transacted in the year 1720,” 1720
Etching and engraving
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A deck of playing cards printed in a single sheet in black and white with whimsical figures depicted on the cards
“Pasquin’s wind cards of the wind trade in the year 1720,” 1720
Etching and engraving
View on Digitcal Collections
black and white detailed print of man in 18th century dress and hat on a boat surrounded by creatures or demons
“Lucipher's New Row-Barge,” 1720
Etching and engraving

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color print of man with roud belly and wearing crown spews paper money from his mouth
James Gillray (British, 1756–1815)
“Midas Transmuting all into Paper,” 1797
Hand-colored etching and engraving

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map showing the lower portion of North America and also Central and South America
Herman Moll (German, ca. 1654–1732)
"A New & exact map of the coast, countries and islands within ye limits of ye South Sea Company"
Hand-colored engraving
[London]: Sold by Herman Moll, [1711?]
Lionel Pincus and Princess Firyal Map Division
View on Digital Collections

Accompanying publication

book cover with title "Meltdown! Picturing the World's First Bubble Economy" over colored print
Meltdown! Picturing the World’s First Bubble Economy

by Nina Dubin, Meredith Martin, and Madeleine Viljoen

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Perspective view of the Rose Main Reading Room, featuring an ornate ceiling, large arched windows, and wooden tables and chairs.

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