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Thursday, November 28, 2013

Currency Art

Kazakhstan 5,000 Tenge, the winner of the 2012 International Bank Note Society's
Note of the Year. (It's worth about $32 USD).
Someone once commented that the three most prevalent items of conscious human consideration (in no particular order) are food, sex, and money. It would be hard to argue with that. Notice that art did not make the top three, probably not even the top ten. Not, that is, unless you are a collector of currency art. Just as there are hundreds of thousands of coin collectors worldwide, there is also an ever-growing cadre of individuals who find money beautiful (and who doesn't to some degree). From what I've seen in my various international travels, cash from whatever country, is nearly always more attractive than their coinage. Coins have but two design attributes, durability and distinctiveness (as to value).
The Australian Five-dollar Bill--a simple, attractive design and color.
A pretty face always helps too.
Continental currency bank note, designed
by Benjamin Franklin. Their value fell to
such a low point they were sometimes used
as wallpaper (and they weren't even pretty).
International currencies have much more complex demands as to design. Like coins, there is a minor matter as to durability. It must be printed on good paper (though sometimes surprisingly thin). Also like coins, one must be able to instantly tell a "five" from a "ten" (color has come to be an important element in this regard). Beyond that, currency has the added requirement that it be difficult to counterfeit (more and more of a challenge as copying technology accelerates). And, in most cases, the currency commemorates (Americans seem to favor dead presidents and Classical Revival architecture). The Brits love their queen (above). Beyond that, there seem to be few limits. The newest requirement as to currency design is that it be distinctively beautiful. and money...what a great combination.

The Song Dynasty Jiozi,
11th century China.
Paper money is nothing knew. The Tang Dynasty in China played around with the concept on a local level as far back as the 7th century though true legal tender did not appear in China until the 11th century (the Jiozi, left). Okay, they weren't much to look at, but they saved the rich from having to carry around hundreds of pounds of copper pocket change. Marco Polo is credited with introducing the concept (and it is a concept as much, or more, than a physical presence) to Europe in the 13th century. On the western side of the Atlantic,the Massachusetts Bay Colony was the first to issue paper bank notes. Like the Chinese Jiozi, they weren't particularly attractive, but they served their purpose. Though the U.S. Continental Congress printed some money to finance the Revolutionary War (above, right), the Treasury Department never got into the act until 1862 when, because of the Civil War, it was necessary to standardize currency in lieu of a plethora of circulating bank notes of varying and fluctuating value depending upon the strength of the banks issuing them.

The Canadian Five Dollar bill with its children playing hockey and it's
verse by Roch Carrier, seems almost like a Christmas card.
The Dutch Guilder (before the Euro
 in 2002) was often printed with a
horizontal format on one side,
vertical on the other.
Today, insofar as design elements are concerned, the U.S. dollar, while being the international currency of choice, falls well back in the pack where the criteria is beauty. Though recently redesigned and updated, eschewing forever the idea that currency should be approximately symmetrical, except for the dollar bill, American money is, at best, not unattractive. But as compared to the brightly colored Kazakhstan 5,000 Tenge bill (top) it's, well...rather dignified and a bit stodgy. The Dutch (pre-Euro) Guilder broke ground by utilizing a vertical design format with many of its denominations. However, to my way of thinking, perhaps the most beautiful currency on the planet is the Antarctica dollar (bottom). What? Antarctica has its own currency? It doesn't even have it's own government. Right, yet be that as it may, their dollar bill is gorgeous, seemingly plagiarized from the pages of National Geographic. If ever money was too beautiful to spend...

The Antarctica Dollar. I'd pay a dollar for such a work of art.

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