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Money is in the eye of the beholder

by Joseph S. Thomas

Cristobal Colon, a.k.a. Christopher Columbus, set empires in motion with the promise of a few sacks of pepper corns. Queen Isabela of Castilla hocked jewels which she had confiscated earlier that year from the Jewish population-- just prior to their expulsion from Spain in 1492-- and used the money to pay for food and cordage for Colon's voyage. In exchange for that bit of financing, she expected spices and pearls in return-- items which were valued more highly than their weight in gold during her reign as queen.
But, instead of washing up on the shores of China, Isabela's explorers, and their successors, landed on an "undiscovered" continent. There, they encountered civilizations-- some of which had cities with populations of more than a million-- with a sophisticated currency system.
Ornaments of quetzal feathers topped the monetary infrastructure, followed closely by a breed of sea conch which yielded a highly prized purple dye. Uniformly sized cocoa pods were used for everyday currency, and were accepted as legal tender in markets throughout Meso-America. Ironically, gold, for which Colon and his successors slaughtered thousands of indigenous people, held no significant monetary value in the first American nations. It was considered as little more than a brilliant, heavy metal which was appropriate only for ceremonial adornment.
The changes in Mexico's monetary system since that time comes into focus with a collection of currency spanning over 500 years, now on display at the Banco Serfin museum. In September, this traveling exhibit opens in the cities of Mexicali and Tijuana. According to the bank's manager of cultural properties, Elvira Herrera Acosta, the exhibit will later stop over in Mexico City, Guadalajara, Puebla and other cities throughout the Republic. It has just recently been shown in Monterrey, Nuevo Leon.
The exhibit, which is composed of pieces from Banco Serfin's corporate holdings as well as private collections, offers an interesting perspective on the history of money. While the current market value of coins issued by the Viceroy during Mexico's colonial period may be common knowledge to many, the Serfin collection also incorporates more unusual forms of legal tender, including cardboard "script."
Like many factory and mine owners in the U.S. and England during the late 1800's, Mexico's hacienda owners often paid their people with a currency that was recognized only at the company store. Given that during the reign of dictator Porfirio Diaz Mexico had more than 1000 haciendas, cattle ranches and foreign-owned factories, millions of such pieces of script were in circulation-- yet today only a few remain, mainly in individual collections and those like Banco Serfin's. Other aspects of the exhibit will also be sure to interest collectors and historians, such as a display of currencies issued by private banks during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Banco Serfin, with more than 110 years of experience as a financial institution in Mexico, actually first opened its doors in the 1880's as the Bank of London. During that time, a charter from the Mexican government allowing foreign-owned banks to operate in this country was contingent on their making enormous loans to the Diaz administration-- which the government ended up being unable, or unwilling, to repay.
As a form of compensation for the uncollectable loans, the banks received permission to issue their own forms of currency, which the government recognized as pseudo-legal tender-- even to the point of accepting the banks' bills in payment of taxes. Monies from the various banks in business during this time were not always recognized by every given institution. A black market soon developed in which banks scripts were bought and sold depending on the laws of supply and demand.
By the early 1900's the country was in economic chaos. The situation deteriorated even further as first Mexico's gold and then its silver reserves went to London, New York and other foreign cities to cover ballooning debts. With no backing for its currency, the government began forcing state and regional banks to issue bills to keep the economy afloat.
As the subsequent Revolution of 1910 extended into the 1920's, the commanders of the various armies fighting in what developed into a civil war paid their suppliers and troops in script. Samples of these monies, which were negotiable only in the areas controlled at the moment by the army which issued them, also make up part of the Serfin exhibit. Currencies issued by Pancho Villa's army, for example, rank among the most highly prized scripts from this period of Mexican history.
Exhibits such as the Banco Serfin collection not only whet the appetite of collectors but also offer a fascinating perspective on an item of everyday use-- proving that tomorrow's collectibles very possibly rest in our pockets today.
For more information about this monetary exhibit, and other cultural displays sponsored by Banco Serfin, visit their museum at Francisco Madero #33, just a few blocks from Mexico City's Zocolo Plaza, or contact the museum at (011-52) (5) 518-1555.