“Never that foreign stuff MedFI. Only English.” were the words of advice from my grandfather, spoken in his gruff yet somehow also sing-song Celtic tones. The irony that the statement came from an immigrant was lost on my boyhood self. Instead there was only excitement and wonder as he showed me the contents of a small tin box. “It can be yours, if you’re interested in it?”.
This early experience must have imprinted on the MedFI psyche because for as long as I can remember I’ve been a collector. Not of stamps, nor Beanie Babies, nor Pokémon cards or even comic books. But of currency. I don’t remember how I replied that time at my grandparents’ house but it must have been in the affirmative, as sure enough I would later inherit the small collection of old British banknotes.
Cash and currency
Humans are really just bipedal magpies; we love to collect things that are ‘cognitively’ shiny. The idea that you can collect money still tickles me – isn’t that just saving? Except you’re saving things that are often useless from the point of view of being legal tender. Historic scraps of paper that were once of value in a system that’s now evolved. Or gone extinct. You’re holding on to items that have reached the nadir of their value in the hope that they’ll regain it, or even exceed it, in the future.
Perhaps it’s how we’ll feel about digital currency in a hundred years. People paid for things how?! Who saw the value in bits of polymer and ink? Already the idea that people used cash, physical money, for the majority of their transactions must be quite foreign to children. Maybe they only see banknotes when they’re stuffed into the birthday or Christmas card from relatives. Or maybe even nan has worked out online banking and it’s all done via the sterile silence of the ether now. Has the tooth fairy upgraded to chip and pin or does she still deal in coins? Perhaps inflation means she doles out notes now anyway.
Author’s note: it was at this point whilst writing this post that I resisted the temptation to Google the price of human teeth.
The only time I handle cash nowadays is at the hairdressers, having to make a lone withdrawal to pay for the short back and sides. I’m always curious as to whether it’s because they cook the books as well as cut the hair. Not really a question you ask the bloke wielding a razor blade by your vital neck structures though.
Cash is going, going….and at some point the economic arbiter will bang their gavel and declare it gone. Perhaps that’s part of the reason I enjoy my banknote collection. It’s there. It’s visceral, tangible, real. Unlike the characterless numbers on a screen that dictate my bank balances, investments and debts. Something different. Different can be fun.
The economics of why £100 is worth more US dollars on one day compared to the next is lost on me. Mentally filed away as “don’t need to know” and therefore not an avenue of further inquiry. I do, however, understand that rolling the Forex dice is a dangerous game. My own experience trying to transfer moderate sums of money trans-continentally wasn’t enjoyable. Much time spent checking exchange rates many times a day or trying to divine the future path the exchange rollercoaster would take. In the end I didn’t lose money, but I certainly didn’t feel like I’d won either. An experience overall best avoided again. Forex is not a game I want skin in, but foreign currency still holds appeal.
My experience with collecting currencies is far more pleasant. I ended up ignoring my grandfather’s advice; the 21st century is after all a global place. My collection reflects that, with banknotes from countries on six continents. An Antarctic dollar would be a nice addition. I did make it a rule that, unless it’s something excitingly different or no longer available, I don’t just buy banknotes to add to the collection. I have to earn it through the experience of having travelled to the place myself or be gifted it by someone who has. When I look back through the collection I enjoy that the notes have a story to them. That time I travelled to country X. That time my friend was kind enough to think of me by bringing back currency from country Y.
The old British currencies are still my favourite though. Not just out of sentiment, but for the history as well. Notes old enough that good old ‘Liz doesn’t even feature on them. Notes that were issued as an emergency during World War Two. Notes from before the decimalisation. A history, one that lines on a bank statement don’t tell. Can’t tell. People are willing to pay for that slice of history – the more historical the better. Old notes can go for staggering sums.
My own collection isn’t that valuable. I’m not in it for the money (although technically I am in it for the money). Unless there’s a future fetish for incomplete sets of international currencies I won’t be sending my children to university with my own idiosyncratic collection. Maybe if they reinstate the old Weimar Republic notes at their face value I’d splash out a bit. I could nearly retire off my 500,000 Mark Reichsbanknote…