By Vijay Shah
I have been collecting banknotes for many years, ever since I was an acne-ridden student at secondary school. What first lured me into the exciting realm of notaphily, to use the official name of the hobby, was a magazine called Money of the World, which if I remember correctly was published by a company named De Agostini Publications. Every fortnight, an issue would arrive at my local newsagents via special subscription, and with my mother’s £2.50 pocket money weighing down my pockets, I would walk briskly to the shop to pick up a copy. Every two weeks, the magazine would either offer a mint condition banknote or two coins, along with news and facts about currency and notaphily.
A selection of paper money from the Ukraine.
From then on, my collection grew. I would badger relatives and friends to bring back banknotes and spare holiday money from their travels abroad. Once I got my first taste of part-time employment working at a pharmacy directly opposite that special newsagents, I began purchasing paper money from a company called Whites, who would regularly send me catalogues detailing price lists for a mouth-watering variety of currency, along with cheques, stock certificates and other ephemera. I was insatiably in my own collector’s heaven.
More than 15 years later, I still collect banknotes, though not as enthusiastically as in my youth. Nevertheless, my collection runs to a few hundred pieces from all over the world. These include Russian ‘blanket’ notes from the dying days of the Tsarist government, European Allied occupation notes from World War II, notes with the faces of long-deposed dictators, and special long-lasting billets issued on high security polymer plastic in lieu of the customary cotton rag or linen paper. I even took possession of a fantasy pseudo-banknote based on a 1980s £10 issue from the Bank of England. Only it bore a picture of Ali G (comic ghetto youth played by comedian Sacha Baron Cohen) instead of the Queen’s head. He was armed with some weird facial expression, and was issued courtesy of the “Bank of Staines”. Wicked!!.
Nowadays most of my hobby acquisitions are bought from sellers on the auction website eBay, which has the largest collection of banknotes on offer in sales or bids that I had ever encountered in my life. There are people on eBay who have made a life’s work out of selling collectible currency and there are numerous shops to choose from.
eBay is where my latest banknote was picked up only this week. The single note originated from Zimbabwe, although the seller was located in Wigan, Cheshire here in Britain. Now what is really special about this banknote is its denomination, or the intrinsic value ascribed to each note by its issuing authority. It is one of the most ridiculous denominations I have witnessed in nearly two decades of notaphily. This banknote is ‘payable on demand’ for the princely sum of TEN TRILLION dollars Zimbabwean. In full numbers, that would be 10,000,000,000,000. Why would a banknote has that high a face value?
Firstly though, before we look at the story behind this freak of economic nature, let me proffer a brief description of the banknote and its features, which can be observed in my photos above.
The 10 trillion dollar note was issued in 2008-2009 by the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe, which is the southern African country’s sole banknote-issuing agency whose authority and pedigree emanates from Zimbabwe’s break from British colonial rule in 1980. The front of the note carries an image of the Chiremba Balancing Rocks, located in Epsworth, Harare. The image is default for all Zimbabwean banknote issues and is the most recognisable symbol associated with the country’s money.
The banknote promises to pay the bearer on demand the sum of ten trillion local dollars on behalf of the Reserve Bank, and carries the denomination in numbers as well. It is a little surprising that the printers were able to fit in all those zeros. The reverse of the note features the glass skyscraper in the capital Harare which serves as the bank’s headquarters, and a ruin of the great capital of Zimbabwe, from which the country takes its name.
The banknote’s security features include a vertical strip and bird ornament logo printed in colour-shifting ink which changes from a sort of salmon pink to deep dark green depending on the angle you look at the ink from. There is also microprinting of the denomination in figures and a register, again with the $10 trillion value in numbers, which matches up on both sides of the note when you hold it up to light. Although there is a printed space meant for a watermark, the banknote does not have one, as hyperinflation meant its issue had to be hurried. The banknote is signed by governor Dr. Gideon Gono.
The story behind this mega-value banknote is a sad one. Infused with racism, economic mismanagement, evictions and the ruination of a proud and ancient nation that was once known as the ‘bread-basket’ of Africa.
Zimbabwe was known as the British overseas colony of Rhodesia until the beginning of the Eighties, when the ZANU-PF party under the stewardship of President Robert Mugabe removed the ethnic white Zimbabwean minority government that ruled for a short while during the dying days of Britain’s imperial plans in this part of Africa. Over twenty years later, Mugabe desired to right the wrongs he and his party felt had been inflicted by the British colonisers and the white minority in Zimbabwe. Mugabe believed that the white Zimbabweans, who were characteristically quite well-off and educated, were holding back the black Zimbabwean people and bleeding the country dry. Many whites were landowners or ran farm steads in rural areas like Matabeleland, as well as forming an intellectual and financial élite in major cities like Bulawayo and Harare. While there was also a black élite too, most black Zimbabweans struggled financially. Mugabe wanted to redress the racial and economic balance, so embarked on a policy of what was euphemistically termed ‘land re-distribution’. He wanted white farmers to return their lands back to blacks, who he felt had been dispossessed of their rightful land rights by the Rhodesian administration in cahoots with the British Empire. While ZANU-PF ministers insisted that white farmers would be adequately compensated, in reality many were evicted off their land by violent grassroots campaigners from ZANU-PF. Some farmers and their families were threatened, has their property smashed up, or were even killed if they resisted the appropriation of their farms. Many fled to neighbouring South Africa or returned to their ancestral homeland, the United Kingdom. At one point, a BBC television news crew filming an eviction on a remote farm outside Harare could only consist of Africans, as any whites in the crew would have been potentially slaughtered by the ZANU-PF rent-a-mobs.
President Mugabe promised that black Zimbabweans would get their fair share of the nation’s wealth, that he felt had been selfishly stockpiled by the children of the ‘colonial overlord’, Britain, but the new owners of the farms were often urban dwellers who had not a clue about agricultural mechanisms. Crops failed en masse and food prices rose. The land grab uprooted Zimbabwe’s once strong economy and smashed it hard into the orange savannah dust. While Mugabe has corrected the sins of the past, he also wrecked the country’s health and ruined the future of Zimbabwe’s people, white black and brown.
When Zimbabwe first gained independence, its dollar was worth more on international exchange markets than the more popular American version. Hyperinflation, of the like never seen in monetary history before, soon tore the bottom out of the currency. As food output fell by 45% by 2008, the Zimbabwean dollar went into freefall, rapidly losing its value. The plummet was made worse by economic sanctions imposed by the EU and USA against Zimbabwe due to Mugabe’s controversial governing methods.
By August 2008, inflation of the dollar was running at 471 billion per cent. The Reserve Bank issued banknotes, agro-certificates and ‘bearer’s checks’ with ever more convoluted denominations. Higher value notes were sent out to banks on a weekly basis as inflation rapidly accelerated. Values of 5 and 10 dollars from the previous series of Zimbabwe’s notes became a distant memory as figures on the banknotes lurched from thousands to millions, then trillions – in only a year. For ordinary people, especially those who did not have access to black market foreign currency, a simple trip to the market became an ordeal, and a very expensive one. Three eggs cost $100 billion, a load of bread set one back around $20-50 billion. That is if the shops had any food stock left, as Zimbabwe was forced to rely on scant food imports from neighbouring countries. A single piece of toilet roll, that is a sheet, not a full roll, costed $417 – at 2006 prices. Even a romantic meal-for-two at one of Harare’s upmarket restaurants involved bringing two suitcases crammed full of banknotes. Accountants and traders, unable to grasp the ever-increasing litany of noughts, weighed wads of money instead of counting them individually. Old worthless banknotes were used as fuel for the cold winters or were stuffed under people’s beds.
Although Zimbabwe tried to rein in the monstrous hyperinflation of the dollar by printing notes in readjusted currency, the measure failed and the Zimbabwean dollar officially no longer is a valid entity now. People now rely on foreign currencies such as the South African rand and the American dollar.
The ten trillion was not the highest value printed for the RBZ. That honour went to a 100 trillion dollar note. The note I acquired belonged to a family of notes, of which this was the smallest, that the bank issued in January 2009, but dated for the previous year. The Bank released a statement shortly beforehand saying the notes were issued for the “convenience of the public”. The 100 trillion note represented the maximum amount of money a citizen could withdraw from their bank in one day. It was worth about $300 U.S. currency but despite this, even small street-corner vegetable sellers preferred US dollar payments to their country’s own beleaguered version, while doctors and teachers protested against their salaries being paid in Zimbabwean dollars.
The banknotes have however achieved cult status among notaphilists, who were already exchanging banknotes from other infamous eras of hyperinflation, such as the Reichsmark of 1930’s Germany, or Hungary’s pengo experiment of the same time. While at one point, the hundred-billion-dollar bill could not purchase a bus ticket to get around Harare, they have proved hot property in the collectors’ market, often fetching fifteen times their original value on website auctions. One Wall Street trader purchased ‘quintillions’ of the ill-fated money from a Reserve Bank dealer and now sells them to investors for as much as US$ 6.- a piece. Despite the fact that millions were printed, wholesale collectors are finding it near impossible to acquire large amounts, and there have been reports of counterfeit Zimbabwean dollars appearing in dealers’ lots to defraud people buying into a very popular branch of banknote collection.
Supposedly I can now half-confidently boast that I am a trillionaire, at least on green-coloured bits of paper. Maybe a mention on the Sunday Times Rich List is in order. But whether Zimbabwe’s trillion-dollars nightmare will turn keen-eyed investors into multi-millionaires remains to be seen. For the starving residents of Harare and elsewhere in Zimbabwe though, this was money that literally was not worth the paper it was printed on.
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eBay United Kingdom LINK
“How much is ten trillion in numbers?” , Answers School Subjects Questions LINK
“Banknotes of Zimbabwe” – Wikipedia LINK
“Hyperinflation in Zimbabwe” – Wikipedia LINK
“How Bad Is Inflation in Zimbabwe?” – Michael Wines, The New York Times LINK
“Zimbabwe to print first $100 trillion note” – CNN World LINK
“How to Turn 100 Trillion Dollars Into Five and Feel Good About It” – Patrick McGroarty and Farai Mutsaka, Wall Street Journal Europe Edition LINK