Symbolic images

Designs on paper money serve as ambassadors for nation’s identity

Paper money has long served as a source of national pride, where famous citizens as well as official emblems and symbols turn up as design elements with some regularity.

Defining just what a national symbol is may not be a simple exercise. Ask an American to pick a pair of unique images representing the United States, and the bald eagle and Statue of Liberty would be high on the list.

Ask some Japanese to identify some American national symbols and many would probably name cowboys, Indians and the Wild West as their ideas.

For the purpose of collecting notes, a national symbol is defined as a portrait or theme that instantly relates to a nation or its heritage. Government-approved coats of arms and other traditional devices are fine, but a compelling vignette is often preferred by citizens and hobbyists.

The design on the back of Canada’s current circulating $5 note is a classic, low-priced example of how everyday scenes can serve as informal national images. What could be more representative of normal winter life than the children’s hockey game and scenes of ice skating and sledding on the back?

The designs on two other Canadian notes also scream “Canada!” to anyone who sees them.

It’s not the national coat-of-arms at the left side of the face of the Series 1975 $50 note that makes a person think of the northern nation. But view the note’s back to see one of the finest examples of paper money art.

The 36 members of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (Mounties) and their horses who make up the famed Musical Ride brigade are displayed in the dome formation. The traditional RCMP jackets are blazing red in color, and the horses are jet black.

With the current exchange value of approximately $41 U.S. and a collector premium, this multihued $50 note is beyond some collectors’ budgets, but some things are worth a financial stretch to obtain.

If that’s too expensive, the Series 1975 $2 note is every bit as Canadian as the $50 issue. The image of native Inuit hunters searching for seals and other Arctic game on the back of the $2 note is an image not quickly forgotten.

Inexpensive notes from other nations also depict popular national symbols.

Australia’s national emblem of a kangaroo and emu (a flightless, 6- foot-tall bird) is an attention getter that appears on the face of the $1 notes issued from 1966 to 1983.

Several Egyptian notes need no explanation to determine their origin. King Tut’s mask appears on the face of the affordable 1-, 5- and 10-pound notes from the 1960s.

Shoppers who want to move up a notch or two on the price scale might be drawn to the stark image of the Sphinx on the 100-pound notes of 1997 and 2000.

Sadly, tyrants and their symbols can also serve as a national identifier.

Vladimir Lenin and the Marxist hammer and sickle were a familiar sight on Soviet currency of the 1960s to the early 1990s. These notes, from a period of history that many would prefer to forget, can be purchased for 50 cents to $5.

One well-known and popular monarch (not a tyrant) can be considered a national symbol for the 21st century: Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II. She has reigned since 1952, and is beloved and respected throughout the world. Her image on the nation’s currency is as familiar as George Washington on the $1 Federal Reserve notes.

In addition to various British pound notes, Elizabeth’s widely recognized face appears on paper money issued by some of the smaller British Commonwealth nations. The list of Commonwealth members includes former outposts of the once-vast British Empire such as Canada, Australia, New Zealand, India, Singapore, Kenya, Uganda and Barbados.

If a person was a famed military leader and founder of a nation that bears his name, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to expect to find the image of such a historic figure on at least one bank note. But Simon Bolivar’s portrait hasn’t appeared on Bolivia’s circulating paper money since the 100-peso note of 1962 to 1983.

Bolivar’s lean face can be seen on the faces of the first issue 1 -, 5-, 10- and 20-boliviano notes of 1928 and paired with a portrait of A.J. de Sucre on the same issue’s 50-, 100-, 500- and 1,000-boliviano notes.

When Second Issue Series 1928 notes were issued, Bolivar’s portrait is the only one seen on the face of the 1-, 5-, 10-, 20-, 50-, 100-, 500- and 1.000- 10.000-bolivi bolivia notes. He turns up again on the 5-, 20-, 100-, 1,000- and notes of 1945. Perhaps the absence of Bolivar in recent years hasn’t been a deliberate snub, as Bolivia has undergone repeated periods of hyperinflation and ongoing economic woes, requiring multiple issues of notes since 1962.

As a constant reminder of a nation’s identity and history, paper money can reinforce familiar and compelling images and events. When executed skillfully, such notes are sought far beyond a nation’s borders by collectors and others who appreciate first-rate artistry.

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