Exhibit Considers the Politics and Art of Inflation

Zimbabwean 100-trillion dollar banknote
The Zimbabwean 100-trillion dollar banknote has become a collectible. Courtesy of Francois Velde and the American Numismatic Society, NYC

The worse a nation’s economy, the more inflated its currency.

That’s one of the takeaways from Signs of Inflation, a new exhibition at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. The show, presented by the American Numismatic Society, looks at the history of inflation through the 7th century B.C. to present day. (Yes, even Ancient Rome experienced inflation—it needed to finance those wars.) Signs of Inflation includes almost 200 monetary objects, ranging from engraved gold coins and cowrie shells to twisted iron rods and handwritten IOUs. But it also demonstrates the myriad, complex ways a bank note—or coin, shell, or what have you—reveals a society’s political and economic health. And it does so through treating money as partly an objet d’art.

Inflation happens when the general level of the prices of goods and services increases. As inflation rises, a dollar, for example, buys a smaller percentage of a good than it could previously. Inflation, particularly hyperinflation, is also intrinsically connected with periods of crisis—mounting debt, unemployment, war—which often require governments to spend more than they have. Because of this, bank notes or coins issued during inflationary times can be rich in symbolism and meaning. Sometimes, they are meant to evoke normalcy, such as when French Revolutionary authorities continued to mint coins with Louis XVI’s portrait on them after beheading him. Other times the currencies are meant to instill cheery optimism. Take the bank notes from the former Confederate States of America, whose secession from the United States, due largely to the issue of slavery, prompted the U.S. Civil War in the early 1860s. Their bills present a rosy view of slavery, depicting healthy, beautifully dressed slaves in gingham dresses and straw hats smiling and working the fields. Slavery is not only good, these bills assert, it is also worth fighting for.

A gold Roman coin, circa A.D. 295-305 A gold Roman coin, circa A.D. 295-305. Courtesy of the American Numismatic Society, NYC

More often, however, states in a period of hyperinflation dredge up historic figures for their bank notes in an attempt to recall a more illustrious past. During its long, destructive civil war in the 1990s, for example, Yugoslavia’s candy-pink paper bills depicted such national heroes as Nikola Tesla and a young female nurse, who symbolized her people’s patriotic resistance to the Germans during World War II.

The exhibition’s largest bill, in terms of monetary units, is from 1946 Hungary: a bank note, printed in July but never circulated, worth 1 sextillion pengö. The bill’s design, which features a beautiful, serene-looking young woman, belies the fact that the country’s monetary system was on the brink of collapse. Its worth at the time: 50 cents. Its worth after Hungary’s new currency, the forint, was introduced in August of that year: 1/10,000,000 of a cent.

Visitors must make an appointment in advance to view the show: numismatics.org/Exhibits/SignsofInflation.

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