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When money is just an illusion

Recession art - ceramic house with "God Bless This Mortgaged House" painted on roof


A penny or a pound - which is more valuable? It depends what you see when you look at money, says Simon Schama.

It could be the debate about the economy that's making me think of money lately, or it could be that in my local constituency two of the candidates are called Cash and Buck.

I have been remembering when I first grasped the true value of money. I was eight. My father, in one of his rare flush periods, put into my little paw a penny coin. But this one didn't have the face of the new queen on it. In fact it was hard to make out a face at all. Within the sliver-thin disc, worn smooth and shiny by great age, was a left-facing silhouette profile of a lighter shade of copper, raised just slightly from its dark base. I could make out a naked neck, a beaky bird-like nose, and tall brow from which hair had been swept back and tied in a ribboned bun.

Penny with Victoria's head, circa 1880
A "bun" penny from Victoria's reign

It was the image of the young Queen Victoria, Dei Gratia, and the date stamped on the penny was 1859.

I had no idea how much the coin was worth. For me the value of the piece of metal was entirely historical. With the coin under my pillow I concocted a long chain of possession through which the penny had passed. Hard, bright and reddish in its infancy, it had perhaps been handed by a bank cashier to a father like my own, who then gave it as pocket money to his son who took it right away to the sweetshop owner for a bag of pear drops, so into the till it went until the shopkeeper needed some change, so he could buy a pie from a street stall, but the vendor had a grown-up boy who was going to the wars, and so early next morning he tucked the coin into his lad's pocket for luck before the Tommy went off to fall on a foreign field - alas for King and Country where his things were picked up by a kindly nurse who...

Well you get the idea. The penny travelled through time and place, darkening, beaten thin on the anvil of history until, as a slightly bent and frail thing almost 100 years old, it reached me and my hyperactive imagination daydreaming between the bladderwort and the rock pools on the muddy Essex shore.

I am, you may be disappointed to hear, no numismatist. I can barely say the word. But coins, for me, have always had this romantically augmented richness. I grieved bitterly in 1971 when the pound became something constituted from 100 boring pence.

Simon Schama
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I had always liked the mere fact of a ha'penny; the sweetly poetic touch of putting the jenny wren - the smallest British bird - on the smallest coin, the humble farthing. I especially loved the threepenny bit for its dodecagonal - 12-sided - weirdness, its brass and nickel sallow yellow gleam and the crowned portcullis on its back.

I loved their nicknames. The long gone Victorian fourpenny piece had been known as a "joey"; our "tanners" - sixpence - seemed a chirpy thing, the right size for a small shot of merriment like sticking it deep in the depths of a Christmas pudding. The "half a dollar" (two and six) was a heavy chunk of change that would get you into the morning picture at the Lido or the Regal to see perhaps a pirate movie featuring wicked old salts who would bite down hard on a doubloon or a piece of eight to test its golden core.

One of my friends, who had seen too many of these films, tried this on a florin - a two-shilling coin - boasting that only the bite test would decide whether the coins were truly silver. Two unforgettable sounds followed this stunt: the crunch of tooth on alloy, and then that of a small boy in surprised pain as he picked bits of broken canine from his tongue.

Paper money

The thing about coins is their seeming defiance of monetary transience. Even when no longer legal tender, their reassuringly jingling durability remains.

One pound note from 1960
When a pound was still paper

Along with that first Victorian penny, I have another of the old Victoria in her widows weeds, and one of the benignly domed and whiskery profile of Edward VII facing away from the mother with whom he had been so embattled. When the pound became coin rather than paper, it seemed, despite exchange rates, to be more not less substantial.

It's all in the mind, I know, but not just in my mind. Ever since paper currencies were invented - not to mention stock certificates and bonds, junky or otherwise - lightness and perishability have been constant themes of monetary moralists, and all the promising by central banks and treasuries printed on the notes to "pay the bearer" has made no difference to those anxieties and suspicions.

Paper catches the wind and away it goes like dandelion fluff. The Dutch liked to call speculations based on delusory assets (sound familiar?) "wind-handel" - trading in air. Popular prints around the time of the South Sea Bubble - another shimmering thing that would float off into thin air and pop - show worthless paper flying away, or else used to wipe the behinds of punters, for the equation of money with ordure was another constant theme of this kind of commentary.

Cartoon depicting money madness of the bubble
Chaos of the South Sea Bubble

The Dutch were also the first international marketers of tobacco, so this symbolic gallery of ephemeral fortune was completed, inevitably, by representations of pipe dreams.

It's not surprising, then, to find in American still life pictures devoted to the fate of the stock market tobacco brands like Lucky Strike or Old Gold, whose very names seem to comment ironically on the propensity of investments to go up in smoke.

One of those painters, Otis Kaye, made just such a picture in the depths of the Depression in 1937 in which he put together other emblems of fugitive fortune - a set of dice, a broken pane of glass and a hanging fob watch - as part of a visual sermon on the evils of market capitalism. Kaye knew his subject alright. He had invested his family fortune - about $150,000 dollars - in the stock market and watched it evaporate in the crash.

Another picture of his is Washout, in which an illusionistic washing line seems suspended from the surface of the painting, to which are clipped a scorched $20 bill and a ticket stub reading "Tower Food Shelter. Admit One". All that kept Kaye himself from famished street life was his ability to sell pictures like this for a few bucks worth of dinner.

Illusionist skill was used to comment on the illusion of prosperity. Sometimes, most ingeniously, that illusion was the look - and even feel - of paper money itself. A generation before Otis Kaye, in the late 19th Century, another period of repeated booms and busts, and at a time when greenbacks were being pumped out of the Treasury, a group of artists in the eastern cities from Philadelphia to New York and New Haven, took to making uncannily exact images of paper money itself. Sometimes pristine, more often tattered and torn.

Street art showing the PM and Chancellor with pound notes fluttering away
An illusion of money

The money paintings were usually shown as a novelty in bars and saloons - often beside actual bills pinned to felt boards - and the painters got themselves a small helping of brief local fame and a steady supply of beer in return. One, William Michael Harnett, was so good that he attracted the attention of the Secret Service that had been founded in 1865 expressly to hunt down counterfeiters.

In 1886, despite attempts to tell the officers that what they were looking at was art not forgery, Harnett was thrown in the slammer and only released by a judge on condition he desisted from the dangerous art of making or faking pictured money. Poor Harnett - and he never did get rich - obeyed and you can guess the end of the story - that his money paintings now go for hundreds of thousands of dollars and more.

Is it too much then to expect our present sorry plight to produce an art in which cleverness is laced with anger; an art that comments on money rather than just rakes it in?

After all, the aftermath of the credit crunch is littered with perfect material - all the paper from all those dodgy deals. Right - I want all you budding Kayes and Harnetts out there to go to your easels and sketchpads and do me a dazzling study in worthlessness.

Of course it might end up being a bit, er, derivative. But, never mind, you can still take the credit.

Below is a selection of your comments.

The 2s.6d. coin was always called half-a-crown not half-a-dollar. It was my weekly pocket-money in my early teens and would pay for a Saturday morning at the Ice Stadium; a 5d. return bus fare taking me to Nottingham, five miles from home, 1s.3d entry fee, and 9d. for skate hire. That would leave me with just a penny for the rest of the week.
Shirley A Reynolds, Shrewsbury

Not only not a numismatist but clearly brought up in some strange part of the country - half a dollar? It was used briefly in the 19th Century because of the similarity to the Spanish dollar (history, you see). No, that was half a crown, and a crown used to be five shillings. And shillings were called bob - as in ten bob and bob-a-job week.
Robert Peett, Newbury, England

When I grew up in Liverpool (1960s) half a dollar was 2s 6d. I was told it was because $4 to the pound was the exchange rate, which meant 5 bob was a dollar and 2s 6d was half a dollar.
F McIntyre, Liverpool

In this part of the world I clearly remember my father calling 2/6 a half dollar - although strangely he never called a crown a dollar. I also recall the 10/- note called "half a bar".
Frank McClintock, Belfast, N Ireland

By sheer chance I have painted coins - this image is an example. The reassuring heaviness of coins is a further reason why they seem more substantial than paper money. When talking about the old fourpenny bit, BTW, you failed to mention an older term for it - one far more steeped in history to my ear: the groat.
James Dignan, Dunedin, New Zealand

My little brother did a wonderful comic-book project for uni about the travels of a single dollar bill. I helped him to write it, and it was fascinating to think over all of the places money might go before it falls into your hands. You can see it here.
Holly Bowers, Euxton, Lancs

Way back in May 1971 I boxed up a collection of pennies, threepenny and sixpenny pieces, shillings, florins and half-crowns in a wartime metal rations box, sealing it all in with melted candle wax. Having read your piece, I might just crack that wax and get the feel of REAL money back in my hands ...
Rob Davis, Telford, Shropshire

This article sent me into a reverie of pounds, shillings and pence and my arcane and useless-in-Canada ability to do long division in old British money. As a young immigrant, I had demonstrated this ability in school only to be told that long division was not taught for another three years.
Ruth Chernia, Toronto, Canada

Wonderful piece - made me think of when I grew up in England. Although the farthing had gone out of currency, the two ladies who ran a local shop insisted on giving one farthing change if it was correct, rather than rounding up or down. Where they got their seemingly endless supply of farthings I will never know. I also had some silver threepenny bits, which I wish I had kept. The only old coin I have now is a 1797 George III penny, worn but still readable, which I believe is called a "cartwheel penny" as it is thick and heavy.
M Thirlway, Apeldoorn, Holland

As a child the coins of other countries were entry points of endless day dreams: what were the nations like, what language did they speak, what would someone like me be doing at exactly this moment, and endless bicycle trips to the local library to once again check out the atlas.
JK Martin, USA

Physical cash is interesting stuff. Some coins and bills can be real works of art. I love looking at bills under a magnifying glass to see all the tiny details, like discovering that the chiaroscuro in a portrait is made of very small words. Anyway many countries don't have "paper" money any more, they make bills out of more durable plastic-y materials. The USA is finally moving away from those monochromatic bills that force you to squint at the numbers rather than just seeing what colour they are, although I think whoever is designing the new bills must be colour-blind. Green and orange and pink all together...
Hwa Shi-Hsia, Penang, Malaysia

Nice little fantasy, but the first illustration is not a bun penny. The Queen wears a tiara, never used on English coins, and has the inscription Victoria Regina, which was only used on an English coin on an 1849 silver florin, where it also added the date. No pirate ever tested a piece of eight for gold content, either, because eight reales coins were struck in silver.
Nicolas Travers, Slough, UK

When I was growing up in Zimbabwe, a coin could buy a loaf of bread. When I paid my old home a visit seven years ago, there was no money in the country. The government had employed the use of bearer checks. A loaf of bread was now bought for billions of dollars. This is when I realized the close link between the value of money and what it can buy. Five years ago I heard that the government was "re-using" the old coins that were in existence in the 1990s. One old man from Gweru who had been in the habit of hoarding coins, managed to purchase a lot of furniture using these old coins. Money that was once termed useless had come back to "life"; it could now be used again.
Vernon, Manila, Philippines

Money is just a promise: a promise that one can trade this coin or note for something of value down the line. Even gold and silver coins, with their inherent value in metal, require an official stamp: in effect, a guarantee from the Monarch that the coin contains silver or gold and not base metal.
Paul Kachur, Oberheimbach, Germany

"Money" qua "money" is meaningless; rather it has two values: one is intrinsic - what you can do with it; the other is the thing itself as a creation or as a memory. An item to be valued not for what it can buy, but because of what it evokes: the beauty of the craftsmanship or remembrance. A 1945 Canadian nickel with the iconic "V" or the reverse designs of 1967 by Alex Colville.
David Skene-Melvin, Toronto, Ontario, Canada

Wonderfully well-written piece, that captures some of the magic (and menace) of money. One need only trawl through monetary history to find the most amazing stories - and many that remind one of today. I suppose one would have to start with ancient Lydia, where coinage was invented, a new medium of exchange, more abstract than the old ones, although perhaps no-one realised that, as the coinage would have been of gold, silver, or electrum. The portraits alone that have decorated coins ever since tell stories, too. Consider the amazing transformation of Greek and other kingly faces in the Celtic imagination, to produce coins with the most abstract of abstract art on them.
D Fear, Heidelberg, Germany

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