This past weekend I attended the Mises Institute for the Austrian Economics Research Conference (formerly ASC). First I should say that the Mises Institute has put together another great conference. I believe that I have missed only one ASC since the beginning (and that was because I was at another Austrian Economics Conference in Prague).
Of all the papers presented there, the most interesting (at least to me) was the one presented by Mark Thornton. He has been attempting to solve an almost three centuries old mystery surrounding the most mysterious economist of all--Richard Cantillon. Cantillon made his fortunate in John Law's bank during the South Seas Bubble and managed to get out just before the collapse, leaving him one of the wealthiest men in the world.
After making his fortune he penned Essai sur la Natur du Commerce en Général. We are not exactly sure when it was written, but estimates put in the late 1720s or early 1730s. It is an important book not only because it is one of the few that Adam Smith actually cites, but it is actually a better explanation of basic economic principles than Smith's Wealth of Nations. (While some may argue that Smith is better, but Cantillon at doesn't lapse in a labor theory of value like Smith did.)
Now to add a twist, there is a mystery surrounding his death. Was he murdered and the house burnt to cover up the crime? Or did Cantillon fake his own death to live out the rest of his life in Bora-Bora or somewhere in South America? We may never know.
Another mystery is what did Richard Cantillon look like? How can there not be a painting of such a wealthy man? It is at this point that Thornton's paper "A Man and his Family" jumps into the picture. Thornton's paper is posted here, and the audio of the session is here as an mp3 audio. Or you can follow this link.
Many scholars have been looking for such a painting with no luck. It is at this point that Thornton picks up the detective story. Thornton has been looking for a picture of Cantillon for the past 10-15 years. The last time he was at the Louvre may prove to be the big break he (and all of us) have been hoping for. He might have made the big discovery. Thornton argues that the painter, Largillière, knew and painted Cantillon, his wife and daughter. I freely admit that I am biased and have a low threshold of proof on this matter, nevertheless, I am cautiously optimistic.
Here is the painting that Thornton claims is Cantillon and his family.
Thornton claims that it was painted around 1730, which would be the correct time. In fact, he also found a painting from 1720 also by Largillière, entitled "Portrait of a 'Gentleman.'" And it is this...
It is clearly the same man. He is younger and while wearing very expensive clothes, his shirt is undone. It is a sign that he is a part of the "nouveau riche." That could very well fit Cantillon and his rise in status during the up swing of the bubble.
Who knows for sure if this is Cantillon or someone else, but I'd like to think that it is him. The next step is to compare the wife in the portrait above with a painting which positively identifies Mary Anne Cantillon. So all we need to do is get some expensive facial recognition equipment, fly to Paris and ask very politely to test these paintings. I'm sure that the French will have no problem with that! ;-)