Thursday, September 27, 2012

Banknotes Reflect Glory of Nation State

Posted by Ian Black
Thursday 27 September 2012 11.44 EDT

Rare auction of Arab world currencies provides rich pictorial display of region's turbulent modern history.

King Hussein of Jordan looks out, in youthful profile, on one side, with Jerusalem's Dome of the Rock on the other. Saudi Arabia's founder, King Abdel-Aziz Ibn Saud, glowers against a background of the grand mosque at Mecca. Old British protectorates in the Gulf mark advertise their independence with timeless images of dhows and palm trees - and the oil derricks that gave them enormous wealth. Palestine's transformation into Israel is marked out in paper money.

Banknotes – sometimes dubbed the "calling cards of nation" - reflect changing political and economic fortunes across a century and a half of Middle Eastern history, the collapse of empires, war, revolution and unrest. Hundreds of them that make up the collection of George Kanaan, a Lebanese banker, are being auctioned in London next week in the biggest sale of its kind to take place in Britain. It is worth an estimated £500.000.

Money famously has no smell, yet hard currency showcases the public face of power and prestige and captures dramatic stories: items under the hammer include banknotes from the final decades of the declining Ottoman empire, their elaborate Arabic script replaced within a few years by the newly-Europeanised Turkish alphabet of the nationalist moderniser Kemal Ataturk.

Paper currency from independent Iraq traces the evolution of the Hashemite monarchy installed by the British in the 1920s until its overthrow in 1958 – when King Faisal II was murdered. Later in the republican era there appear the first pictures of Saddam Hussein, first in uniform and then in a dark suit. Since his overthrow in the wake of the 2003 US-led invasion, Iraqi banknotes have reflected enduring themes from the country's history – minarets, Assyrian carvings and fortresses. For the first time the Kurdish language is to be incorporated into new notes being issued next year.

The 30 years of British rule in Palestine are represented by banknotes issued in English, Arabic and Hebrew as Jewish immigration gradually changed the balance of power. Israel issued its own notes after its war of independence and the Palestinian "nakbah" in 1948 – with themes ranging from pioneering to science and Galilean landscapes as well as a grandmotherly-looking Golda Meir.

Offerings from the Gulf reflect the dizzying pace of change in the 20th century. Kings and mosques dominate Saudi notes. Emirati designs feature coffee pots sparrowhawks and falcons – reminders of desert traditions. And who could have predicted that the currency issued by the Qatar monetary authority would help build one of the world's richest countries? Yemen's divisions are represented in banknotes from north and south, now united into one poor and unstable country.

Kanaan's collection is not comprehensive: Iran, Syria, Lebanon and Egypt are significant gaps – as are the countries of the Maghreb.

Recent events there are a reminder of the role banknotes can play at times of change. Last year £1bn worth of Libyan currency that had been printed in Britain was confiscated in line with a UN freeze on state assets. It was later handed to the rebels who overthrew Muammar Gaddafi. Since then dinar notes with Gaddafi's flamboyant picture on them have been withdrawn by the central bank in Tripoli.

Neighbouring Tunisia, which experienced the first of the revolutions of the Arab spring, has destroyed banknotes with any images linked to the overthrown President Zein el-Abidine Ben Ali. Egypt seems likely to reflect the end of Hosni Mubarak's 30-year rule in the design of its future currency.

De la Rue, the British security printer, reportedly hailed the Arab uprisings as a source of possible new business – of the kind it found in eastern Europe after the collapse of communism. It provided the currency for the new state of South Sudan but refuses to say who, if any, its new Middle Eastern customers are.

Syria has experienced problems with its banknotes because the Austrian firm which used to print them stopped when EU sanctions were imposed over the Assad regime's violent crackdown on protests. Russia is said to have taken over, though the central bank in Damascus denied this, insisting that it was business as usual. All will doubtless be clarified in future catalogues and auctions.

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