A history of Greece’s banknotes

Before the euro came along, facilitating transactions and symbolizing the idea of a unified Europe, a country’s banknotes reflected the economy of the country while also portraying its history and traditions. This multifaceted aspect of European banknotes from the past is one of the thoughts likely to occur to someone visiting the Banknote Museum of the Ionian Bank of Corfu. The museum, which opened to the public in a fully renovated state a few months ago, traces the history of the Greek drachma beginning from the first treasury bonds of the newly liberated country in 1822 until the drachma’s replacement by the euro in 2002. A separate exhibition hall focusing on the Ionian Bank Limited (a British venture and the first bank to operate in Greek territory) includes all types of banknotes that the bank issued from 1840 – which was roughly when the bank first started operating in Corfu – until 1920. All sorts of documents, decrees, contracts, seals and old photos relating to the Ionian Bank’s activity are also included. The presentation is meant as a homage to the «mother» bank of the banknote collection that was passed on to Alpha Bank following the two banks’ merger in 2000. Three years later, Alpha Bank decided to renovate the premises of the former Ionian Bank in Corfu (housed in a stately building designed by the eminent Corfu-born architect Ioannis Chronis around 1840) and its Banknote Museum that had been established back in 1981. Historian Aris Rapidis, curator of the museum, took over and restructured the presentation of the collection to high-end museum standards. Two years down the road (2005), and with the help of John Keyworth, curator of the Bank of England, the museum finally opened to the public. This is the first time that a banknote collection owned by a Greek bank has been made available to the broad public on a steady, museum-hour basis. (Besides the banknote collection, Alpha Bank also owns a collection of ancient Greek coins curated by Dimitra Tsangari and located at the head offices on Stadiou Street in Athens. The collection is open to the public, via appointment only. The collection of modern and contemporary paintings and sculpture as well as engravings – the latter initially owned by the Ionian Bank – curated by Irini Orati and Aris Rapidis, are also owned by the bank.) Displayed in chronological order, the collection in the Banknote Museum includes some rare specimens in the history of Greek banknotes. The first banknotes were issued under the rule of Ioannis Kapodistrias, the first governor of Greece in the newly liberated country. They are rather plain banknotes showing a phoenix and printed in a rose color on a white background. Before Kapodistrias became governor and at a time when the Greek economy was still at a rudimentary state, the provisional government in Greece issued treasury bonds in pisters (or grosia) to facilitate transactions. With the establishment in 1849 of the National Bank of Greece, the drachma (the term goes back to ancient Greece) became the official Greek currency. The first banknotes issued were printed in British printing houses (Perkins & Bacon or Bradbury & Wilkins), but at the turn of the century printing was appointed to the American Banknote Company. The American company was responsible for printing Greek banknotes until around 1928, when the newly founded Bank of Greece took over this right by establishing its own Printing Foundation. One of the rarest and most unusual Greek banknotes dates from the period when the American Banknote Company was printing Greece’s banknotes. A reflection of the «Megali Idea» (the dream of reconquering Greece’s former territory in Asia Minor), this Greek banknote depicts the Byzantine church of Hagia Sofia in Constantinople, but without the minarets. The banknote was designed in 1920, but by the time it was ready for circulation several years later, the Asia Minor disaster had already taken place. It was therefore never used. Some of the most beautifully designed Greek banknotes were issued during the interwar period. Curator of the museum Aris Rapidis singles out a series of banknotes that, unusually, were printed in France. Designed in a cross-style of art nouveau and art deco, the banknotes depict allegories that link ancient Greek history to modernity. An example is a banknote that shows Hermes on one side and an image that alludes to commerce on the other. The Bank of Greece was particularly sensitive about the aesthetic value of banknotes and actually hired various, well-known artists of the time as permanent employees responsible for designing and overseeing the entire printing process. One of these, Michalis Axelos, is credited with innovative designs that focused on themes reflecting antiquity. Greek-inspired themes that promoted the uninterrupted continuity of the country’s tradition and presented antiquity along with the Byzantine period, modernity and folk culture as a continuum was the underlying ideological concept of most banknotes produced in the interwar period. In the troubled World War II years, steep inflation led the government to issue provisional banknotes and temporary checks. Various types of banknotes, each issued by a different occupation force, were also used. The so-called «Kivernisi tou Vounou» (the provisional mountain government) had its own banknote whose value was measured against the kilos of wheat that it equaled. One of the most unusual holdings of the Ionian Bank collection, the banknote shows a guerrilla fighter on one side and lists the conditions and terms of the mountain government on the other. Another unusual holding of the collection is 100-billion-drachma banknote dating from 1944. This is the biggest face value that a Greek banknote ever carried. After the period of hyper-inflation ended, its value went down to 2 drachmas. Early banknotes (before 1910) that have the highest value are also the most difficult to find. The reason for their rarity is that they were issued in limited numbers and were rarely kept by the owners, who preferred to replace them with the new banknotes being issued. The museum’s curator says he hopes to trace more banknotes from this early period, especially those dating from 1850-1890. Except for some minor omissions, the collection of the Banknote Museum of the Ionian Bank in Corfu maps out the entire course of the Greek drachma and the history of banknotes that circulated in the country for almost 180 years. It is an interesting history to ponder. It offers a view into the economy of the country along with its politics and ideology, but also into the artistic skill and aesthetics that went into the design of the country’s banknotes. The museum is located on Aghios Spyridonas Square in Corfu’s main town. (Tel. 26610.41552; opening hours: Wednesdays-Sundays 8 a.m. – 3 p.m.; extended hours as of April 1.)

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