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Goodbye little drachma — end of an era

A younger colleague asked me the other day about the value of 13 drachmas 40 years ago, which was the symbolic sum paid in the transfer of Mimis Domazos, recently voted best Greek soccer player in the last century, from a neighborhood soccer club to top-of-the-league Panathinaikos. It was about the cost of nine newspapers at the time. National currencies are embedded in countries’ economic and social histories, used as standard measurements of value and the medium of exchange as nations conduct their business. They are much like ships used to carry economies through seldom tranquil waters. When their capacity becomes limited or, like Argentina’s peso, they lose their seaworthiness, they may be withdrawn and replaced, sometimes with several nations teaming up to run a bigger vessel in unison. The euro, into which the currencies of the 12 members of the eurozone are about to melt, is such a vessel. It is not the first common currency in history and will probably not be the last. In the context of this metaphor, Othon Tsounakos’s «Farewell My Little Drachma» (in Greek), published at the end of the Greek currency’s 169-year journey and withdrawal to the scrap yard, sounds like an incongruous and overtly sentimental title. This is not surprising, as, like all institutions that come to an end, a national currency carries its own sentimental value. Older generations, in particular, will probably miss proudly citing to younger people the prices of basic essentials decades ago as insights into their struggle to make ends meet. But as an Italian trader put it on television recently, «We love the color of money, whatever it is.» Nevertheless, «Farewell My Little Drachma,» published by Heliotropio, is an enjoyable chronicle of Greece’s monetary history since independence in 1830. It vividly tracks the country’s financial trials and tribulations from dependence on foreign patrons in the struggle to build the nation through bankruptcy, war, occupation and crippling hyperinflation to the relatively calm last 50 years. Photographs of the main issuances of coins and notes, securities, posters, advertisements, people in their daily business and newspaper front-page reports on landmark events, and cartoons are accompanied by informative commentary and details which make the book a well-timed and interesting coffee-table book for the layman wary of academic and specialist jargon. The introduction to «Farewell My Little Drachma» is an adequate and lively summary of modern Greece’s monetary history, but the publisher’s note, true to the title, is an exaggerated lamentation of the disappearance of «an integral part of our drab lives» of the past, declaring the aim of the publication as «to counter, as much as possible, the epidemic oblivion» threatening to engulf what was «more than a mere piece of metal.» There is no reason to suppose that the Greeks in the future will be more oblivious of the drachma than they are of any other piece of their history. Collectors will certainly not be more oblivious of the drachma than any other piece of metal. One could understand many Germans, for instance, having misgivings about the replacement of the mighty Deutschemark for the sake of the supposed greater benefits of European unification. The vehicle for rebuilding their war-shattered country into Europe’s economic powerhouse has been of proven caliber, and has since become one of world’s main reserve currencies. By contrast, the drachma has been one of the European Union’s least respected currencies, as many a Greek traveler in Europe has often found to his/her dismay. For a long time after the war it enjoyed even lower confidence among Greeks themselves, who preferred to hoard their savings in gold sovereigns. These were extensively used as a means of payment until the government outlawed their possession in 1964 in order to force savings into the banking system. The drachma has lost more than 12 times its nominal value against the US dollar since 1953, the year of a landmark 50-percent devaluation – the first of four. So, little drachma, yes, but not to be particularly missed. Although not a catalog, the book will also be of some interest to amateur collectors, providing estimates of the current and future value of drachma coins and notes. These, however, should not be taken at face value, as dealers may offer differing opinions. The book, for instance, reports «huge demand from dealers and collectors abroad» for the six different types of the 500-drachma nickel coin for the Athens 2004 Olympic Games, issued last year, whose value «is expected to shoot up.» A dealer speaking to Kathimerini last Sunday, however, expressed the view that «it will not rise in value even after 200 years, as it is of poor taste.»