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Room 68: Money 

Object details

Height: 14.5 cm
Length: 25.2 cm
Width: 18.5 cm

Museum number: 1905,1206.9

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Silver satirical medal attributed to Christian Wermuth

Made in Germany, 1720

This medal records a financial crisis in France in the early eighteenth century, caused by the actions of Scottish economist John Law.

In 1716, Law established a bank in France. It was bought by the French government in 1718 and renamed the Banque Royale. Through the bank and his Mississippi Company, Law developed and implemented a financial theory whereby he controlled the national revenue-raising system, the national debt, international trade, the mint, and the issue of bank-notes. In January 1720, Law was appointed controller-general of finance and by June that year was councillor of state with a seat in the council of regency.

However, a speculative bubble created by the overstating of the Mississippi Company’s assets resulted in more and more people buying shares. A loss of confidence led shareholders to demand cash payment, and a run on the Banque Royale caused financial chaos in France. Law went into exile in December 1720 and died in Venice in 1729.

The medal is attributed to Christian Wermuth of Gotha, Germany. The front (obverse) shows the figure of a man, probably John Law himself, crying out ‘Who will buy shares?’ as he holds a pair of bellows blowing out shares.

Bellows are a particularly appropriate device for the artist to use, as while they are being used to pump shares into the market, they are tools generally used to inflate, or stoke fires and furnaces. In this way they are very suggestive of the over-inflation of the market and the inevitable fall and crash caused by it.

The inscription written around the edge of the medal reads like a warning, ‘Who in the desire for money will allow himself to be led by this wind?’