The history of images depicted on Arab banknotes is a study of visualizing modern nationalism. Egypt, for instance, issued its first banknotes on April 3, 1899 while it was still under British occupation (1882–1952). Over the course of the twentieth century to date, Egyptian banknotes showed images either of famous Egyptian mosques or of Pharaonic sculptures. The 2010 Egyptian Banknote is emblematic of this combination of a religious landmark and antiquity. On one side, the note depicts the mosque complex of Sultan Hasan, and on the other it shows Great Sphinx of Giza built during the Old Kingdom. The ANS also has several earlier examples of related paper currency (2011.47.6). While Egypt continued to modernize, its Islamic and Pharaonic histories not only animated the nation’s landscapes, but also defined its identity.
Mahmoud Mukhtar’s Egypt’s Reawakening (Nahḍat Miṣr) is an especially rare image of a work of art found on a modern Arab banknote. According to art historian Alex Dika Seggerman’s research, Mukhtar (1891–1934) first sculpted a model of Egypt’s Reawakening in 1920 as a commemorative work for the landmark 1919 revolution of Egypt. Mukhtar made the model in Paris for the 1920 Salon of French Artists. Egyptian students visiting Paris were moved by its symbolism and came back to Cairo to campaign for its large-scale public commission. The sculpture made of locally sourced granite was eventually installed outside of Cairo’s main train station in 1928, and subsequently moved outside of Cairo University in 1955.
In Egypt’s Reawakening a strong Egyptian peasant woman (fallāḥa) opens her veil to listen to the cries and hopes of the Egyptian public. With her steady hand she—the woman as nation—is connected to the symbolic historical artifact. This uplifting image of strength appeared on the 25-piastre (qirsh) banknote that had a short-lived issue from 1967 to 1976. The first issue of this currency (1967–1969) also featured a 50-piastres note with the al-Azhar mosque on one side and a statue of Ramses II on the other, consistent with the mosque/Pharaonic combination that dominates most of Egyptian currency.
While the gesture to Mukhtar’s nationalist sculpture on an Egyptian banknote may be seen as remarkable, its Pharaonic imagery assimilates it into the broader canon of designs for paper money. Although the depictions of Ramses II or the Great Sphinx are of great ancient sculptures, they are mediated through their modern designs appearing on paper money codifying them as part of a nationalist vocabulary. Mukhtar’s sculpture materializes these forms with another layer of mediation by adding a reminder of the present, the peasant woman, and demonstrates how powerful imaginings can become a poignant national symbol when evoking the past as a vision for the future.
 For an erudite analysis of this sculpture see Seggerman 2014.
For further reading on Mukhtar see:
Seggerman, Alexandra Dika. 2014. “Mahmoud Mukhtar: ‘The first sculptor from the land of sculpture.” World Art 4:1, 27–46.
ibid. “Mahmoud Mokhtar.” Mathaf Encyclopedia of Modern Art and the Arab World.
Alireza Khounani is a PhD candidate at New York University’s Institute for the Study of the Ancient World (ISAW) focused on Archaeology of the Near East and Central Asia before Islam. Alireza’s main area of interest is the Parthian period in Iran and the role of landscape and cultural hybridity in forming local diversities which manifests itself in the material culture of this period including coinage.
The Arsacid Empire (248 BCE–224 CE) spanned the largest period of antiquity in the Near East and western Central Asia and ruled over a vast area between Mesopotamia all the way to Central Asia. Succeeding the Seleucid Empire, the Arsacids followed the Attic weight to strike their coins. Noteworthy is that within their Empire, the vassal states, for instance Elymais, Persis, and Characene, were also allowed to issue their own coinage, which is seen as a sign of their strong local autonomy. Furthermore, these political powers, who were usually amongst the native royalties, had the right to practice their own religious beliefs.
This social and political diversification of the Parthian period in addition to the scarcity of solid evidence make it difficult to determine what religion the Arsacid kings themselves adhered to. Scholarly tradition claims that ancient Iranian Empires follow Zoroastrianism, an Indo-Iranian religion that survived until today whose main stress is on the preservation and maintenance of the eternal/sacred fire, which is considered to be the manifestation of the great god Ahuramazda. However, most of the evidence for ancient Zoroastrianism comes from post-9th century literary sources and we do not know for a fact what the religion of the Achaemenid, Arsacid, and Sasanian Kings was. Nevertheless, one prominent element, “pedestal fire-altar,” has been seen on rock-reliefs and coins, and has been discovered archaeologically. It is usually accompanied by a king in an investiture scene. It is important to clarify that within this context a fire-altar is the one—predominantly a pedestal fire-altar—that is supposed to guard and maintain the sacred eternal fire rather than the much more common sacrificial altar.
There has been a great deal of confusion over distinguishing fire-altars, especially in the case of Arsacid material where this image is very rare. For instance, the form of the object and the offering gesture of the figure on a reverse type of bronze coins by Artabanus II (Fig. 1) is a sacrificial altar that finds later parallels on Kushan coins as well. A pedestal fire-altar can be seen behind the image of Arsaces (ca. 250–211 BCE), the founder of the dynasty, on the reverse of a silver drachm by Phraates IV (37–2 BCE) minted in Mithradatkert (Fig. 2). This altar is strongly comparable to those found on the Achaemenid tombs at Naghsh-e Rostam, on the Parthian period coins of Persis, and on the reverse of the Sasanian coins. The presence of a fire-altar on a Mithradatkert issue is very meaningful considering it was the first Arsacid capital where Isodore of Charax reports to have seen the “fire of Arsaces.”
Recent scholarship suggests the existence of a ruler-cult in the Arsacid house. The image of Arsaces is present on almost all the reverse types of his successors; all who were titled after him. Ammianus Macelinus compares this royal practice to that of the “Caesars” of the Roman Empire. Deification of Arsaces can further be suggested by the title Theopater that some of his successors used, and also by the fact that he is, in several cases, shown sitting on an omphalos.
Fire has long been seen as a sign of royal power and as the element through which the spirit of kingship (or Farah) is transferred from a king to his successor. The fire-altar on the relief of Darius I at Naghsh-e Rostam is accompanied by the king who is receiving the ring of kingship from the “winged figure.” Sasanian Kings have their own kingly fire on a diademed pedestal altar shown on the reverse of their coins in a scene of investiture where the king is receiving a diadem from his predecessor (Fig. 3). There are also examples where a figure in flames is on top of the altar, who is suggested to be the ancestral spirit of kingship (Fig. 4).
The context in which a fire-altar is placed alongside the figure of Arsaces on a drachm by Phraates IV is comparable to that of the fire-altar and winged figure on Achaemenid reliefs; and the diademed fire-altar and figure in flames on Sasanian coins. It can be concluded that a form of Indo-Iranian royal cult with a focus on sacred fire was continuously practiced by Iranian royal dynasties throughout antiquity. This study attempts to demonstrate that the Arsacids were prominent actors in promoting this ideology and played the main role in developing its image and transferring it from the Achaemenids to the Sasanians. However, in order to confirm whether this royal cult was eventually evolved into a monotheist religion named Zoroastrianism after the arrival of Islam, requires much further investigation.
Fae Amiro is a PhD candidate at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. Her research focus is Roman portraiture, and she is currently writing a dissertation on the portraiture of the Imperial house during the reign of the emperor Hadrian, which addresses broader questions of portrait type creation and the dissemination of sculpture throughout the Roman empire. She was a participant in the 2017 Eric P. Newman Graduate Seminar.
The empress Sabina is not a figure who is frequently given much attention, due in part to her lack of prominence in the literary record. She was wife of the emperor Hadrian and they are said to have had an unhappy marriage, but not much else is known. Her coinage, however, has received more scholarly attention, because it was issued in larger numbers than that of any previous empress and features a good deal of variety in its portraiture. The question of the true chronology of her coinage has been debated for ninety years. However, few have addressed the reasons behind the changes observable in the coinage, in particular the impetus behind its start date and the introductions of new types.
In order to address these problems, I conducted a die study of the aurei which display the portrait of the empress Sabina. This had not previously been done and is the best way to form a relative chronological sequence for coinage. The die-link sequence confirms the following chronology for the portrait types which appear on the aurei. First is a type called the turban, dating to 128 C.E. (Fig. 1). The next type is Sabina’s main portrait type, the queue, which was probably introduced in the year 131 C. E. (Fig. 3). The Aphrodite type comes next, around 133/134, and was in use until her death and shortly thereafter. Following her death in 136/7, she was consecrated as a diva and a posthumous issue was created to commemorate this.
So, this answers the question of the true sequence of the types. The reasons for the creation of the last two types, the Aphrodite and posthumous types, are well understood. The Aphrodite is represented in a classicizing style, which is associated with Hadrian’s return to Rome after his trips in the east. The posthumous type was created to commemorate her consecration.
The impetus behind the creation of the other types is harder to address. The motivation behind the start of coining for the empress in 128, eleven years into Hadrian’s reign, is unclear. Previously scholars believed that it was because Sabina gained the title of Augusta in that year, but this has been proven incorrect by Eck and the results of the die study. Most likely a number of factors came together at the right time to inspire this change: the ten year anniversary of a reign was a common time for coinage reform, the imperial couple had just returned from a trip abroad and were about to embark on another one, there were no other Augustae alive at the time, and Sabina’s presence on coinage may have helped advertise the family’s prestige, given her relation to the imperial family of the previous dynasty. This last point is supported by the style of the portrait, which resembles that of her mother, Matidia, who was Trajan’s niece (Fig. 2).
Scholars have previously believed that the queue type was introduced to form a visual connection between Sabina and her predecessor, Plotina. However, there are a number of problems with this assessment. This message would have been redundant, since the turban already showed dynastic continuity, and untimely, since Plotina had died eight years previous. A side by side comparison shows that the very assertion that they look alike has been overstated, especially given the prevalence of ponytail-style hairdos among women at this time (Fig. 4). The motivation for the creation of the type is more likely the opposite, that it actually represents a stylistic departure from the previous dynasty and the introduction of a uniquely Hadrianic style.
More work needs to be done, but the results so far show that Sabina’s life events, particularly in association with Hadrian’s imperial travels, had an effect on the appearance of her coin portraits.
The American Numismatic Society cabinet contains a remarkable collection of Chinese coins and currency ranging from early bronze spade money (Fig. 1) and so-called “ant-nose” coins derived from cowrie shells down to more recent issues of the People’s Republic of China. Within this long parade of money, a watershed moment took place in the late third century BC when Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of a unified China (220–210 BC), introduced a new cast bronze coinage to be used throughout his empire. The coins, known in Chinese by their denomination ban liang (“half tael”), were circular in shape, like the contemporary coins of Greece and Rome, but included a square central hole that permitted them to be strung on cords for easy storage and transportation in an age before pockets (Fig. 2). Over the centuries the basic form of the ban liang was used and reused for new imperial coinages of different names and denominations like the wu zhu (“five-zhu”) and tong bao (“circulating currency”). As European trade with China expanded in the Far East in the seventeenth century, such coins came to be known in English as cash—a term derived from kaasu or kasa, South Indian (Dravidian) words for “money” often referring to a coin of small denomination.
While cash coins are interesting in their own right, not only in their role as currency, but also in Chinese tradition as talismans for the living, medicine for the sick, and assistance for the spirits of the dead. They are also remarkable as part of a growing corpus of Eastern coins brought to the shores of the United States and Canada early in the histories of these countries, largely unnoticed by the numismatic community. There is always something exciting about a coin discovered in a wrong or unexpected place. When this happens there is almost invariably a good story that goes with it.
Chinese cash coins have been recovered from Indigenous archaeological sites of the maritime fur trade period (1778–1850) along the northwestern coast of North America stretching from Alaska through British Columbia and into the contiguous states of Washington, Oregon, and Idaho. The coins were already being traded to Indigenous peoples of British Columbia by the late 18th century, as indicated by a meeting between the Spanish explorer Jacinto Camaño Moraleja and the important Nuu-chah-nulth (Nootka) chief Taglas Cania in 1792. On this occasion, Taglas Cania is reported to have arrived at the meeting wearing his finest apparel, which included a coat and trousers adorned with cash coins similar to the Qing (Manchu) Dynasty tong bao depicted below (Fig. 3). These were attached to his clothing like buttons, but seem to have been intended to announce the presence of their wearer by the pleasant tinkling sound they made when they struck against each other as he moved. The coins and their sound enhanced the status of the wearer, visually illustrating the chief’s important trade connections and providing him with his own theme music on occasions of significance. It has been claimed that the Tlingit peoples of Alaska sewed numerous cash coins to leather coats and vests not only as status symbols, but to serve as body armor in their conflicts with other tribes and Russian traders in 1802 and 1804. However, the military aspect of such clothing has been disputed, with some recent commentators arguing that it was primarily used as ceremonial garb. A number of Tlingit cash-encrusted jackets and vests can still be seen in public collections such as those of the American Museum of Natural History and the Canadian War Museum.
It is unclear exactly how long before the arrival of Caamaño the Indigenous peoples of the north west coast of North America developed their taste for Chinese cash, but 1788 seems most likely. In the spring of this year, the English captain John Meares sailed from the Chinese port of Guangzhou (Canton) with a complement of Chinese crewmen, and reached Nootka Sound on Vancouver Island. There he established a post for trade with the indigenous Nuu-chah-nulth peoples despite lacking permission from the East India Company to do so. It has been suggested that Meares’ Chinese crewmen may have begun trading cash coins to the Nuu-chah-nulth when they discovered the attraction of Indigenous peoples to articles made from copper—copper and brass pots had long been staples of European trade with the First Nations of North America—and that this chance trade became regularized in subsequent visits by English traders. On the other hand, it is just as possible that Meares purposely included cash coins in his cargo when he sailed out of Guangzhou in 1788 with the intention of trading them to Aboriginal peoples as trinkets in return for much more valuable seal skins.
Chinese cash coins remained a popular item of clothing decoration among the Indigenous peoples of the north western North America into the 20th century (Fig. 4), although by this time the supply brought by maritime fur traders was supplemented by coins carried by the large numbers of Chinese immigrants who came to work on the great transcontinental railways built in the United States and Canada in the 1860s and 1880s, respectively. Cash coins seem to have been preferred for adornment in part because they came ready for stringing and because they were obtained fairly easily. With a value equal to about one tenth of a U.S. cent, Chinese cash had virtually no use as money in North America. Nevertheless, when cash coins were not available, other coins, like U.S. dimes and half dimes (Fig. 5), were pierced by for the same decorative purpose.
It is worth noting that the custom of wearing coins as clothing adornment connects the Indigenous peoples of northwestern Canada and the United States not only to the Far East through their use of Chinese cash, but indirectly also to the Middle East. There many Islamic cultures had a tradition of piercing coins to be worn as part of a bride’s costume (most typically her headdress) on her wedding day. The ANS collection includes hundreds of examples of coins that have been pierced, some of which almost certainly received their holes in this wedding context (Fig. 6). It is from this custom that the term sequin (an English corruption of zecchino, the Italian name for the famous Venetian gold ducat and its imitations) enters modern parlance as the small, shiny disk-like decorations most frequently found sewn on to certain kinds of glamorous women’s apparel.
Coins found outside of their expected areas of circulation and put to unexpected uses are always a source of great interest. The case of Chinese cash in northwestern coastal North America is no exception, as the coins document the long-distance maritime trade between European traders operating from Chinese ports and Indigenous peoples and highlight the cross-cultural uses of coins as part of clothing. The modern states of Canada and the United States have prided themselves on being cultural mosaics and melting pots, respectively. The more attention paid to foreign money found in North America reveals these terms to be relevant just as much to coins as to people.
Gregory Callaghan is a PhD Candidate in Ancient History at the University of Pennsylvania, and a Kolb Fellow of the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. Greg has a wide range of research interests, including Roman Republican politics and the evolution of Athenian democratic institutions. His main focus, however, is the international relations of the Hellenistic Period. His dissertation applies IR theories of status hierarchy and regional powers to the growth of the Attalid kingdom, examining Attalid foreign benefactions through epigraphy and archaeology.
One of the traditional lectures of the Eric P. Newman Graduate Seminar in Numismatics is entitled “Cistophoric Mysteries.” It is an apt name for a lecture dedicated to the cistophoric coinage of Asia Minor. Known as one of the ugliest coins ever produced, the cistophorus was introduced by the Attalid dynasty on a reduced silver standard, somewhere between 190 and 160 BCE. And that is more or less all that we agree on, with the exact date of its introduction, its nature of production, and to what degree it was a closed currency system still debated. But if we still scratch our heads at the nature of the early cistophoric coinage, this is nothing compared to our ignorance of the late cistophoric coinage. From ca. 105–60 BCE, a generation after the end of the Attalid dynasty, several Anatolian mints issued a second series of cistophoric coinage, which was followed by issues produced by these same mints under the direction of Roman magistrates. It is only now that these later issues of cistophori have begun to receive the scholarly attention they deserve. Helped in particular by the generous bequeathal of Rick Witschonke’s collection of cistophori to the ANS—undoubtedly the finest single collection of the coins in the world—Lucia Carbone and William Metcalf have forthcoming studies that investigate the late cistophori of Tralles and the Proconsular Cistophori, respectively.
My project for the graduate seminar picks up on these recent studies by examining the late cistophori of Laodiceia-ad-Lycum. This city is described by Strabo as one of the two great cities of Phrygia, along with Apameia—another late cistophoric mint. Hoard evidence suggests that it began minting cistophori around 90 BCE, and continued into the 60s BCE, when the mint switched from seemingly civic issues to issues stamped with the authority of the Roman proconsuls. My die study of the coinage shows that the mint had a stable output of cistophori through both periods of production. This may seem unremarkable, until we place this in a greater context, both chronologically and geographically. Under the Attalids, Laodiceia produced only 4 identified obverse dies, less than 2% of total cistophoric production. Yet it produced 46 identified obverse dies in the late cistophoric period. Furthermore, in the period of late cistophoric production, Laodiceia produced less than 10% of the total cistophori minted in the province, but it produced over 20% of the proconsular cistophori.
These substantial changes between periods of production need be explained. Until we have more complete studies of all the mints of the late cistophoric period, we can do little more than speculate. But it seems that around 90 BCE, something occurred at the local level that resulted in Laodiceia springing from a mint hardly worth mentioning, to one producing at the level of its more established neighbor, Apameia. In the decades that followed, as we become more certain of Roman oversight, it is clear that a Roman provincial policy developed that maintained the cistophoric production of Laodiceia, while dramatically cutting the production of other mints. My study of Laodiceia can do little more than draw attention to the existence of these situations, and cannot pinpoint the explanation behind them, but it does provide an important piece of the puzzle that I hope can be completed with the addition of further pieces as more of the late cistophoric mints are subjected to similar scrutiny.
The Art of Devastation: Medals and Posters of the Great War premiered as an online exhibition on July 31, 2017. Based on the physical exhibition by the same name, which ran from January 27–April 9 at the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center at Vassar College, the online edition includes each of the 130 medals and posters with text and high-quality, “zoomable” color images. The online exhibition also includes video, maps, and links to the ANS’s collections database. Guests can browse the exhibit on their computers, tablets, and smart phones. The exhibition and its catalogue were co-edited by Peter van Alfen, the Margaret Thompson Curator of Greek Coins and head of Curatorial at the ANS, and Patricia Phagan, the Philip and Lynn Straus Curator of Prints and Drawings at the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center. The online exhibit was created by Andrew Reinhard, ANS Director of Publications.
This marks the first in a new series of free online exhibits created and curated by the ANS using tools provided by the Google Cultural Institute. The ANS collections include more numismatic specimens and artifacts than could ever be shown in its public exhibition space, or through loans to other museums. By curating permanent, online exhibits, the ANS can share its collections in organized, thematic ways for anyone to enjoy. Future online exhibits for 2017 include Funny Money: The Fight of the U.S. Secret Service against Counterfeit Money, curated by Ute Wartenberg, and an exhibition on Umayyad coinage curated by Vivek Gupta.
The printed exhibition catalogue for The Art of Devastation is available for purchase through the ANS’s store.
In the past decade, the American Numismatic Society has been fortunate to acquire a number of African numismatic objects from the Boston-based collector Alan Helms. These objects are mostly produced within the last two centuries and are distinguished by their large size for objects of numismatic value. Most of the objects come from modern-day Congo, Nigeria, and Cameroon. At first blush they come across as simply worked pieces of metal. The ANS caught up with Helms to find out more about his overall collecting practices and what led him to these objects, and to learn about how he grew his collection.
Q: When was the first time you bought a numismatic object from Africa? What inspired you to collect this work in particular?
I bought my first piece of African currency from Monsieur Huguenin at Galerie Majestic on Rue Guenegaud, and in short order I started buying from most of the galleries in Paris. Whereas a good Baule wooden standing figure in those days might sell at auction for $3,000, $4,000, or $5,000, one could find superb currency for a fraction of that cost. This work remains one of my favorites.
Q: Where were you acquiring these objects when you lived in Paris? Can you describe the market for African works in Paris at the time?
I was a visiting professor at the University of Paris (Nanterre) in 1983 when a colleague took me to several African art galleries and the African collection at the old Musée de l’Homme. I remember being totally smitten. Around the same time, I discovered African metal currency, which I found equally intriguing as African art, and it was more affordable. So I began to purchase examples in Paris. This launched me into a lifetime of collecting African currency in Europe and the United States. Within a few years I had some 80 pieces.
Q: How have these objects fit within the context of your overall collecting practices?
The two main collections of my life have been African metal currency and Chinese scholar rocks—both incidentally among the world’s most beautiful abstract arts.
Q: How did you learn more about the objects you collected?
Visual features have been my sole guide throughout so I’ve never studied these objects in any systematic, scholarly fashion. I’m almost exclusively concerned with the forms themselves. But it’s also true that little serious work has been done to date on African metal currency. Few catalogues exist and many of those are of doubtful value. It’s a ripe field for art historians who specialize in African art!
Q: You have donated parts of your numismatic collection to several important institutions including the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and Wellesley College. Other than the study and care for your works, what relevance do you think they could carry?
For one thing, the objects themselves are aesthetically fascinating. Beyond that, they’re an important part of the material history of the cultures that have created them.
The Spring 2017 issue of ANS Magazine will be mailed to Members on June 20th, but the article “Wishes Granted: the ANS and the NEH” can be read right now for free (3 MB download).
The article, authored by Peter van Alfen, Gilles Bransbourg, Ethan Gruber, and Andrew Reinhard, details all of the recent NEH-funded work being done at the ANS with a nod to the Society’s past regarding Open Access initiatives and data-sharing.
On June 5th, the 63rd Graduate Summer Seminar in Numismatics, which has been generously sponsored by Eric P. Newman, began at the ANS under the direction of Dr. Peter van Alfen. Since 1952, the Society has offered select graduate students and junior faculty the opportunity to work hands-on with its preeminent numismatic collections. The rigorous eight-week course, taught by ANS staff, guest lecturers, and a Visiting Scholar, introduces students to the methods, theories, and history of the discipline. In addition to the lecture program, students select a numismatic research topic and, utilizing ANS resources, complete a paper while in residence. The Seminar is intended to provide students of Classical Studies, History, Art History, Textual Studies, and Archeology who have little or no numismatic background with a working knowledge of a body of evidence that is often overlooked and poorly understood.
This year’s Visiting Scholar is Dr. Thomas Faucher of the Institut de recherche sur les archéomatériaux, Centre Ernest-Babelon, part of the Centre national de la recherche scientifique (CNRS) and the Université d’Orléans (Orléans, France). Dr. Faucher is, among other things, a specialist in ancient coin production and Ptolemaic coinages. In addition we welcome eight students who come to us from McMaster University, the University of Pennsylvania, Yale University, the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World (NYU), the University of Delaware, the University of Houston, and Rutgers University.
A few weeks ago, quite a large number of Latin American banknotes were donated to the American Numismatic Society, largely early 20th-century issues from Bolivia. Many of these banknotes, One-Boliviano bills dated 1911 and issued by El Banco de la Nacion Boliviana, bear an imprinted overstamp that reads “Banco Central de Bolivia.” Three signatures appear at the bottom, which seem almost as if they had been processed manually because of their range of colors, irregular locations on the banknotes, and various combinations of signatories.
It would be futile to understand the context that had led to their issuance without some understanding of Bolivia’s currency history. Partially ruled by the Incas before the Spanish conquest, the territory of what would become Bolivia became part of the Viceroyalty of Peru until 1776, when it was transferred to the newly established Viceroyalty of the Rio de la Plata. Incorporating the Potosi Mines, the area became Spain’s main silver supplier from 1545 until its independence on August 6, 1825. The young Republic, founded by Simon Bolivar, naturally turned toward silver to create the backbone of its currency system in 1827, with the new Sol exchanged on par against the Spanish colonial Real. However, wars, internal conflicts, excessive reliance on imports, and economic growth led to a permanent lack of monetary supply. Limited use of gold, minting of debased silver coinage and of bronze small change were not sufficient to alleviate this issue, leading to the introduction of paper money in 1867. At the same time, the world was moving away from the bimetallic gold and silver standard, adopting gold as its monetary anchor. As a result, the value of silver fell and Bolivia adopted the gold standard in 1895. Minting of silver coins decreased, coming to a halt by 1909, while Peruvian and British silver coins gained legal tender status. By the early 20th century, banknotes, issued by four private banks, had grown to represent more than half of the country’s overall monetary supply. At that time, a new currency unit, the Boliviano (worth 8-Soles) had been in circulation since 1864.
On January 7, 1911, Banco de Bolivia y Londres was turned into a mixed bank with a 78.4% state participation called Banco de la Nacion Boliviana, which enjoyed exclusive privilege of printing banknotes from 1914 onward. Its first banknotes were overstamped on existing pre-1911 bills, before the regular Mercury-type new banknotes were printed shortly after a May 11, 1911 law covering a 1–100 Bolivianos range:
However, like most other countries all around the world, Bolivia’s cycles of economic boom and bursts worsened with the Great War. Currency convertibility into gold had to be suspended between 1914 and 1928. However, high demand for raw materials from the US stimulated tin production, originally only a by-product of the country’s mining sector, which brought back prosperity. After a provisional fall in 1918, tin exports surged to become 24% of world production by 1929. This amounted to 70% of Bolivia’s total exports. Logically, excessive credit expansion and unregulated speculation reached their peak.
Enter Princeton Professor Edwin Walter Kemmerer. Holding PhDs in Philosophy, Economics, and Finance from Wesleyan and Cornell, he witnessed the suspension of the Gold Standard in most of the world (but not the US) following 1914, followed by a period of strong monetary expansion that degenerated into high inflation and currency disorders in several countries. The breakdown of paper-money convertibility into gold, even if restored provisionally in some countries in the 1920s, had opened the doors for unlimited abuse of monetary expansion at the hands of political authorities and economic agents. A strong advocate of more independent central banks, return to gold standard, and control of monetary supply, Kemmerer was called by Guatemala in 1919, where he oversaw the creation of a central bank. This started a cycle of economic and financial reforms sweeping the continent, Kemmerer and ad-hoc teams of advisors steering a range of financial, monetary and legal reforms in Colombia (1923), Chile (1925), Ecuador (1926), Bolivia (1928), and Peru (1930). At the same time, he was involved with other countries as diverse as China, Turkey, and the Philippines.
In Bolivia, Kemmerer intended to suggest reforms of the taxation, custom, and financial systems altogether, while creating a true central bank with capacity to offer rediscount facilities to other banks. Kemmerer concluded his mission in July of 1927. A law dated July 11, 1928 and promulgated on July 20, 1928 led to the transformation of the existing Banco de la Nacion Boliviana into a central bank, initially named Banco Central de la Nacion Boliviana, operating alongside a banking regulatory and supervisory body, la Superintendencia de Bancos y Seguros, as well as a controlling authority. Regulations protecting private savings were set up as well as reserve ratios between banks’ capital and their balance sheet and limits on the banks’ ability to expand credit. The new central bank’s mandatory reserves of metal were fixed at 50%, and the Boliviano defined as a currency unit equivalent to 0.54917 g of gold. British and Peruvian Pounds were reestablished as legal tenders alongside the national currency. On April 20, 1929, the bank adopted its final name, Banco Central de Bolivia, and initiated its activity on July 1. Although the state owned 62.5% of the bank, it could appoint only 2 board members out of 9.
The central bank started to issue new banknotes bearing “Banco Central de Bolivia” and the July 20, 1928 date, displaying a portrait of Simon Bolivar, which replaced the former Mercury of the 1911 series. The law of 1928 had provided for coinage of silver for fractional denominations up to the 1-Boliviano unit. However, through amendments on February 5 and December 3, 1929, it was agreed to retain the 1-Boliviano notes. As a result, the denomination range produced by the new central bank was no different than in 1911, with banknotes of 1, 5, 10, 20, 50, and 100 Bolivianos to which higher denominations of 500 and 1,000 Bolivianos were added. The date of the law that had established the new central bank replaced the previous 1911 date.
Since no real currency reform had taken place, the monetary structure that had operated since 1911 could be maintained. The law had simply provided for the replacement of the old banknotes with the new ones issued by the central bank, which paid royalties to the central treasury in exchange of this privilege. Pending the printing of the new series, it was then decided to use the older types, incorporating a “Banco Central de Bolivia” overstamp.
Interestingly, a range of overstamps were used, with four different colors—black, blue, pale blue, magenta—and four different sizes for the letters: very large, large, medium, and small. This created potentially 16 combinations for each denomination. Actually, not all these combinations were used for each denomination. As far as the 1-Boliviano banknote is concerned, neither the red overprint nor the largest letter size are to be found. The delay in getting the new series printed may be explained by the fact Bolivia, like most Latin American and many other developing countries at that time, subcontracted the printing job to corporations located in the US or in Europe. In this case, the American Banknote Company, which was responsible for printing the majority of the paper money used by the Latin American countries between ca. 1870 and 1970, was entrusted with that task.
One of the difficult parts was the fact banknotes had to carry the signatures of no less than 3 different officials. In 1911 they were the Contador (Accountant), the Delegate of the Government, and the “Gerante” Director of the issuing bank. The 1928 law had substituted them with the Accountant, the Superintendent of the Banking Authority and the “Gerente General,” the Central Bank Governor. As a result of bureaucratic and political instability, these names changed frequently. No less than 16 possible combinations of officials are encountered on the un-stamped 1-Boliviano 1911 banknotes, to which the three additional combinations displayed on the overstamped series need to be added. The plates and inks that were used for printing the signatures vary as a result, with exact location on the banknote, color, letter thickness, and shape displaying much instability. The range of colors and sizes used for the letters on the stamp added to this variety, ensuring that each banknote featured almost unique characteristics.
The banking reform did not allow Bolivia to escape the consequence of the 1929 market crash and subsequent economic depression. Mining exports collapsed, and private consumption dropped 25% between 1929 and 1932. With high unemployment, capital imbalances and falling salaries, Bolivia left the gold standard for the second time in 1932 after it had defaulted on its public debt in late 1930. A military junta had taken over in July 1930, and the country went into a disastrous war with Paraguay between 1932 and 1935. In 1939, the central bank was nationalized, after its independence had been gradually reduced as a result of the economic and financial crisis.
Kemmerer’s faith into the gold standard had not helped the country: its overvalued currency exchange rate, fixed at the height of Bolivia’s mining activity, had effectively hindered its capacity to export goods in a competitive fashion, while allowing cheap imports. To some extent, Bolivia suffered the fate of those countries that did not leave the gold standard and devalue their currencies soon enough, like France, even though Bolivia left the gold standard before the US did.
Obviously, one cannot only blame Kemmerer’s inspired reforms for what was happening: the crisis was global, and it is likely that reining in excessive credit before 1929 had allowed the country to mitigate some of the economic depression’s impact. In the long run, the most striking tribute to the 1928 financial overhaul lies probably with the survival to these days of some of the institutional framework it had created: Bolivia is still enjoying a Central Bank that helped extract the country from further inflation and hyperinflation in the 1950s and early 1980s.
In any case, most economic crises find their roots outside of the realm of monetary policy, and even the most efficient central bankers have to deal with their governments’ generally sub-optimal economic policy choices.