Saturday, February 25, 2017

The Secret Art History on Your Money

 


A $1 note from the Corn Exchange Bank of Wisconsin shows an illustration of a “fancy head” derived from a painting by the French artist Constant Joseph Brochart. Credit Collection of Mark D. Tomasko

 

Money talks. And these days, it also walks.

American currency is set for its biggest image overhaul in decades as an old face is demoted — that means you, Andrew Jackson! — and some new ones, less uniformly white and male, arrive.

The images on legal tender are perhaps the most widely circulated art in the world, but where do they come from? That’s the question explored by “Images of Value,” an exhibition at the Grolier Club in Manhattan devoted to the underpondered truism that financial art, like the bills it is printed on, doesn’t grow on trees.

The more than 250 items on view come from the collection of Mark D. Tomasko, a retired lawyer who became fascinated by the beauty of financial art at age 10, when his grandmother gave him an obsolete stock certificate from the old Marmon Motor Car Company. Today he is the rare collector who focuses on tracking down the original artwork behind the engravings on bank notes, stock certificates and other financial documents.

“It’s a bit of an Easter egg hunt,” Mr. Tomasko said during a recent interview in the gallery, taking out his smartphone to show a visitor the hundreds of engraved “fancy heads,” or decorative female heads, he keeps on hand for reference. “I enjoy putting together the puzzle.”

The show, on view through April 29, presents a kind of shadow art history, driven not by bohemians in their studios or working en plein-air but by a rarefied if staid-looking crew of artists and engravers who suited up every day to work at outfits like the American Bank Note Company. The company was the king of an industry that — like the dollar itself — ruled the world well into the 20th century, when financial “dematerialization” and other forces took their toll.

Today, going cashless is easy, but when paper is required Mr. Tomasko likes his lucre very clean.

“I only use new money,” he said, pulling a hyper-crisp Benjamin out of his wallet to point out its high-tech anti-counterfeiting features.

And what happens when he gets change?

He paused, then said, deadpan: “I try not to get change.”

Here is a sampling of items Mr. Tomasko has retrieved from the vast, gorgeous and sometimes bewildering dustbin of American financial art history.

 


A chromolithograph by Michele Fanoli based on a painting by Constant Joseph Brochart. Credit Collection of Mark D. Tomasko

 

So Fancy

Before the Civil War, American currency was a confusing welter of notes issued by state banks. The notes often bore pastoral vignettes heavy on cows, wagons, haystacks and other features of rural life, sometimes subtly adjusted. (In one bill from a South Carolina bank, a white fieldworker seen in the background of the source image was transformed into an African-American, presumably a slave.)

That dizzying demand helped create the American security engraving industry, while also leaving people uncertain whether the bills they held were any good. “It was a beautiful, difficult currency,” Mr. Tomasko said.

The “fancy heads” both prettied things up and made the documents harder to counterfeit. A $1 bill issued by the Corn Exchange Bank of Wisconsin in the 1850s or ’60s, shown at top, includes a head derived from a painting by the French artist Constant Joseph Brochart. Mr. Tomasko bought the lithograph shown above, which is based on Brochart, just because he liked it. Later he realized it had been engraved and used on a bank note. “It was entirely accidental,” he said.

 


A lithograph based on a Charles François Jalabert portrait of Martha Washington. Credit Collection of Mark D. Tomasko

 


The silver certificate bearing her likeness. Credit Collection of Mark D. Tomasko

 

Founding Mother

The first general-circulation United States currency appeared in 1861, when the government, to finance the Civil War, issued non-interest-bearing $10 demand notes, with Abraham Lincoln on the front. The United Stated Bureau of Engraving and Printing was created in 1874 and took over production of all American currency in 1877.

The faces on the front weren’t always the all-dude lineup we know today. Before there was Harriet Tubman (coming soon to the $20), there was Martha Washington, who appeared solo on the front of a $1 silver certificate in 1886 (shown above), and then alongside her husband on the back of another one issued in 1896. (Today, George has the $1 all to himself.)

The bureau has no record of the source image, but Mr. Tomasko said it was a portrait by Charles François Jalabert, which he also circulated via 19th-century cards, magazine illustrations and lithographs. Like all United States currency issued since 1861, these bills remain valid at their full face value, but if you want to buy an 1886 Martha, you’ll need to fork over as many as 1,500 Georges.

 


It’s not the Great Wall of China on this engraving, but the city walls of Beijing, which are no longer standing. Credit Collection of Mark D. Tomasko

 


A 1918 bill for the Asia Banking Corporation. Credit Collection of Mark D. Tomasko

 

Chinese Walls

After the federal government took over production of currency, American Bank Note focused on the foreign market. In the first half of the 20th century, its biggest customer was China.

Chinese bank notes, Mr. Tomasko said, generally did not feature faces. Instead, they showed buildings and landscapes, often drawn from photographs, which were becoming an increasingly important source of imagery for securities.

The image on the 1918 bill for the Asia Banking Corporation shown above depicted the old walls around Beijing, now gone; the image comes from a picture postcard, with a sky drawn in before engraving, to create a richer scene. “It’s not easy to engrave good skies,” Mr. Tomasko said.

The Chinese Revolution of 1949 put an end to that market. Two other major American Bank Note customers, Mexico and Brazil, also created their own industries in the 1960s, dealing another blow.

 


A photo of a work by the currency artist A.E. Foringer. Credit Collection of Mark D. Tomasko

 


Foringer’s work on a Canadian Bank of Commerce note. Credit Collection of Mark D. Tomasko

 

The Master

By the 20th century, American Bank Note and other companies commonly commissioned original art rather than taking images from the broader culture, partly because the salon art of the 19th century had given way to new movements whose images were “not suitable” for currency vignettes, as Mr. Tomasko’s catalog puts it.

If there’s a true maestro of this art in the show, it’s A. E. Foringer. Foringer, who trained with the muralist Edwin Blashfield, had his 15 minutes of fame with “The Greatest Mother in the World,” a Madonna-like Red Cross poster from 1918 — the only work mentioned in his 1948 obituary in The New York Times, Mr. Tomasko noted a bit forlornly.

But Foringer also had a long career as a vignette artist for American Bank Note, creating images that appeared on more than 50 international bills and many stock certificates, including a series for the Canadian Bank of Commerce in the 1910s and 1920s that Mr. Tomasko calls “the most beautiful bank notes of the 20th century.”

Mr. Tomasko acquired some of the large oil paintings Foringer made after American Bank Note sold the bulk of its archives at auction in 1990. Most of the original artwork Foringer did for the company is lost, but the engravings made from them have not entirely disappeared. The seated woman with grapes shown on a different Canadian Bank of Commerce note, a five-pound bill issued by its branch in Kingston, Jamaica, shown above, appears today on the label of the Maiden, a cabernet produced by Harlan Estate, a Napa Valley winery that has resurrected two Foringer engravings.

 


A painting by the artist Robert Lavin. Credit Collection of Mark D. Tomasko

 


A certificate for the Great American First Savings Bank. Credit Collection of Mark D. Tomasko

 

Capitalist Realism

In 1874, the New York Stock Exchange began requiring that all listed companies have their securities engraved by a reputable banknote company. The exhibition includes many examples, which themselves provide a kind of pictorial view of changes in the nature of American capitalism.

The trains and steam engines of the 19th century gave way to sometimes amusingly anachronistic allegorical figures (like a 1936 Foringer vignette showing a woman in neo-Classical drapery holding a telephone); in turn those gave way to a style Mr. Tomasko calls “capitalist realism.” The 1986 certificate for the Great American Savings Bank shown here features a quartet of ordinary workers by the artist Robert Lavin, including what Mr. Tomasko said was probably the first image of an African-American professional used on a financial instrument.

The stock market boom of the 1980s and ’90s was good for the picture engraving business. But other shifts in the economy — including the rise of the tech-company-heavy Nasdaq exchange, which did not require engravings — finally caught up. In 2001, the New York Stock Exchange dropped its engraving requirements, dealing what Mr. Tomasko called “a final blow” to nongovernmental security engraving in the United States.

Today, he said, the only picture engravers in the United States are the handful working at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing. Mr. Tomasko called them “unsung heroes.” One of them, Thomas Hipschen, a retired engraver whose portraits of Andrew Jackson, Ulysses S. Grant and Benjamin Franklin may be in your wallet, will be speaking on a panel at the Grolier on March 7.

 

 

Courtesy Jennifer Schuessler, The New York Times February 23, 2017

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