Monocolumn

A daily bulletin of news & opinion

13 October 2014

When there’s not an abundance of money around – as has roughly been the case since 2008 when the people in charge of that kind of thing somewhat carelessly misplaced it all – one way to ease the strain is to simply try and make more of the stuff. And if you can make new money look visually exciting or even a bit funny, all the better.

The island of Niue in the South Pacific is taking the latter approach, with the nation’s newest coins set to feature her majesty the Queen (Niue’s head of state) on one side and Mickey Mouse on the other. (Insert joke about which side features a two-dimensional character living in a fantasy world here.)

It’s not the first time Niue has had some fun on its coinage. In 2011 the island did the same trick with Star Wars (insert gag about which side featured a dark imperial overlord… Oh, you get the picture) and it is actually a fairly astute strategy. Each time one of these “Mickey Mouse” currencies passes hands from the New Zealand Mint to a buying collector, Niue, a cash-strapped nation with 90 per cent of its population living abroad, receives a royalty payment. It should see the island generate €4.2m over the next 10 years.

Money’s literal worth is a strange thing. Many of us take the value of these pieces of paper, plastic, copper and nickel for granted. In the UK, paper with the Queen on it is worth around £5, £10, £20 or perhaps even £50. Paper without the Queen on it, though? Not so much. And according to wisdom inherited from a few minutes spent (perhaps squandered) on coinflation.com, a site dedicated to establishing the melted worth of that chunk of change in your pocket, a US dollar is actually worth around five cents (€0.04). That dollar isn’t even worth a dime.

Of course, it’s not really that simple. Any number of highly complex and barely understandable factors contribute to the worth of a currency, such as the health of a nation’s economy, exchange rates and the fighting form of an army of workers, financiers and vast swathes of national industries. And so it also falls to the skills of engravers, metallurgists, artists and, yes, even bankers to help refine the detail, rarity and strength of a currency against forgery – to make it special. And the detail on coins and notes is a very beautiful thing. Even the 45 million fake pounds currently in the UK look pretty good.

But it’s the Norwegians who are pushing this art form into a fresh and beautifully subtle visual language. The country’s new banknotes designed by Norwegian architecture firm Snøhetta and graphic-design studio The Metric System feature heavily pixelated images of the nation’s coastline in beautiful colour combinations.

Whether the note’s users will see more of Mark Rothko in its blended blocks or maybe just a particularly attractive game of Tetris is completely up to them. Because it seems that buying into Norway’s note, like much of the world of finance, is worth about as much as you want to put in.

Tom Hall is a writer and sub editor for Monocle.

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