The Handelsbeurs in Antwerp, the World’s First Stock Exchange
It’s easy to walk straight past the Handelsbeurs in Antwerp. The entrance lies at the end of a narrow lane near the city's most famous shopping street, the Meir. For three years the site was closed off for renovation work, but this stunning building where the 16th-century global economy was fired up is open to the public again.
The original building was constructed in 1531 by the architect Domien de Waghemakere in the elaborate Flamboyant Gothic style of the Low Countries. It was called the Handelsbeurs after the inn Huize ter Buerze in Bruges where foreign merchants had traded in the 15th century. The merchants resettled in Antwerp in the 16th century, drawn to the city by its dynamic mercantile community as well as the fabulous new stock exchange built for them.
The architect incorporated a courtyard surrounded on four sides by unusual Moorish arcades. The courtyard was originally open to the sky so that God could observe the transactions. It was later roofed over to protect the merchants from the harsh northern climate.
Etching and engraving of the Antwerp trade exchange, illustration to Ludovico Guicciardini's 'Commentarii di Lodovico Guicciardini delle cose più memorabili' (Venice, 1565) © Wikimedia Commons
The English banker Thomas Gresham was one of the merchants who met regularly in the Handelsbeurs. While God looked down, Gresham developed some dubious methods to boost the value of English sterling, which enabled the king to pay off substantial debts. Gresham eventually returned to London and set up the Royal Exchange in 1565 modelled on the Antwerp building.
Meanwhile, back in Antwerp, the Golden Age came to an end when Spanish troops rampaged through the city in 1576. A few years later, in 1583, the stock exchange burned down. It was rebuilt, but burned to the ground again in 1858.
The old trade exchange after the fire of 1859 ©FelixArchief, City Archive Antwerp
Fortunately, the port was booming at the time and the money was found to rebuild. The architect Jos Schudde largely recreated the original building in Gothic style in 1872. It went on to serve as one of Europe’s stock exchanges until 1997 when most of the business was moved to Brussels. By 2003, the building was so dilapidated it was closed down.
But then a miracle. The city found the funds to renovate the building from 2016 to 2019. It reopened in 2019 with the stonework gleaming like new. Step inside to admire the Moorish arcades, the walls decorated with world maps and the 56 wooden offices where the stockbrokers used to work.
The Handelsbeurs after the renovation © VRT
The arcades are now occupied by small shops including a florist and local chocolate maker Goossens. The complex also includes a coffee truck and a gorgeous restaurant located in the shipping exchange next door.
The figure of the 19th-century architect looks down on the courtyard from a first-floor balcony. Like God, you might say.