Part of an online Sotheby’s New York (25/20/12.9% buyer’s premium) sale that ended on December 17, this was the splendidly titled Confusion de Confusiones of Joseph Penso de la Vega, a Sephardic Jew whose family had settled in the Netherlands.
It provides a detailed explanation of the Amsterdam stock exchange, where he speculated and, it is said, lost and won back his fortune five times.
The practices he describes in this work of 1688 – puts, calls, pools, and manipulations – remain very much in evidence in contemporary exchanges, said the cataloguer.
Vega’s original Spanish language account, however, remained little known until 1892, when German economist Richard Ehrenberg published an essay in the Jahrbücher für Nationalökonomie und Statistik.
Translations into German and Dutch followed in 1919 and 1939, and in 1957 an abridged English translation brought the text even wider recognition.
Trading and speculation in stocks – as opposed to goods – had begun only with the establishment of the Dutch East India Company, said Sotheby’s, but by 1611 Amsterdam merchants had already built an exchange building on the banks of the Amstel.
In his preface, Vega explains his motivation in publishing this account of the “confusion” of the still relatively recent stock exchange: for his own enjoyment, to champion the exchange as a fundamentally honest and useful enterprise, and to warn of deceitful practices.
The main text is written as a series of dialogues between a philosopher, a merchant, a shareholder and others, and in one of them appear Vega’s teachings about stock markets and his four golden rules for speculators.
The first principle regarding speculation is: “Never give anyone the advice to buy or sell shares, because, where perspicacity is weakened, the most benevolent piece of advice can turn out badly.”
The second is: “Take every gain without showing remorse about missed profits, because an eel may escape sooner than you think…”, and the third, “Profits on the exchange are the treasures of goblins. At one time they may be carbuncle stones, then coals, then diamonds, then lint-stones, then morning dew, then tears.”
The fourth principle is summed up as: “Whoever wishes to win in this game must have patience and money.”
As well as establishing himself as a leading merchant and philanthropist, Vega also published drama, poetry and romances, along with philosophical and moral treatises in both Hebrew and Spanish.
Very few copies of the 1688 first of Confusion de Confusiones appear to have survived and the only other example seen at auction was sold in the same rooms back in 1987, for £15,000.
This New York copy was sold by the Jewish Theological Seminary to benefit its Rare Book Acquisition Fund.