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Funny money, falso, fouree, fake!

By on November 24, 2019 in Travel with 1 Comment
Front and backs of the 13 Roman “fouree” coins, copper base with a thin silver wash. These are not government issued, so are counterfeit by any definition.  But they are very valuable. Which raises some interesting questions about truth, falsity, value, worthlessness and leads to questions about Bitcoin and Libra, etc…

Monetary theory in four scenes

By Dale Foreman

Scene One. We are in Buenos Aires, riding in a taxi on the way to a famous coffee house, La Biela. 

The year is 2008. The financial crisis is bad, worse in Argentina than in the U.S. 

We just arrived in Argentina the day before and changed some money at the airport. As we pulled up to our destination I hand the cab driver a 50 Peso bill. He takes a quick look at it and hands it back to me. “Falso” he says. 

I say, what? It must be good, I just got it at the bank. “No, es falso!” he yells and asks for a different bill. I give him another one and he says, “No, es falso tambien.” He finally told us to just get out of his cab and he drove off.

We walked into the café, sat down and ordered our coffee and rolls. During the 1920s and ’30s, this was the place where race car drivers hung out and the walls are still covered with photos of race cars and their handsome drivers. Living in the fast lane, it was a risky business.

Later when we tried to pay I handed the waiter one of the 50 peso notes. He took it up to the cashier and came back, laughing and in a loud voice, said: “Es Falso, pero muy bien hecho.” 

Three other waiters came over to look at the bill, they examined it closely and passed it around. Finally the waiter handed it back to me and patted me on the shoulder. His eyes twinkling, he told me the counterfeiters in Buenos Aires were very good, but this particular bill was “False, but excellent, very well made, like a work of art.”

In 2008, the U.S. dollar was worth 10 Argentinian pesos. Today one U.S. dollar is worth 55 pesos. The populist monetary policies of Argentina have bankrupted the country. People do not bother counterfeiting pesos anymore. The good counterfeiters now make U.S. dollars. 

50 peso bill: Can you guess which one is counterfeit? Does it matter?

Scene Two. We are back home in Wenatchee. I go to a minimart to buy gas and try to pay with a $50 bill. The clerk takes a pen and draws a line on the money. 

I ask, “Do you think it is counterfeit?” She says, “just checking, we do find ‘funny money’ every few days. There is a lot of it going around.” Fortunately my $50 was real. But it reminded me of the trip to Argentina.

I found a book entitled, A Nation of Counterfeiters by Stephen Mihm. A fascinating history of American con men, fly by night bankers, crooks and politicians who printed money that was worthless.

Trust was all that mattered, according to the author. 

If a clerk trusted the customer, and accepted the bill, it was good value for that transaction even if it was counterfeit. If it passed from one hand to another, it worked, it had value, it was in fact “money.”

But when someone said, “Wait a minute, there is something fishy about that piece of paper? Let me take a closer look?” Then the confidence was shaken, the trust was broken, and the bank note or dollar would not be accepted even if it were in fact a true, valid piece of paper money. It would lose its value even if it were real. 

Scene Three. We are in the tiny town of Brehemont, on the Loire River in France. The year is 2018. 

We have stumbled upon a giant yard sale. In France they call them “Brocantes” and once each year, residents in every town have the right to close off the main streets, set up tables, invite all their friends and relatives to come and sell their accumulated treasures. 

France is the attic of Europe. Ever since the Napoleonic wars, the troops have been bringing back booty, the spoils of war and the storerooms and attics of the entire country are filled with great old stuff. 

What a fun day, meandering through the stalls, looking at all the dishes and lamps, fine art and antiques, books, jewelry and even coins. 

But how many of these “treasures” are real antiques? How do you decide if those porcelain candlesticks are authentic and worth 900 Euros, or are imitations and worth $50? 

My wife, Gail, found a beautiful old Quimper flowerpot that only cost 10 Euros, it looked authentic and on EBay it costs $250. She found a brand new set of famous name table linens and bought them for 20 Euros. The same set in a store in Paris costs 300 Euros. Are they authentic? (Yes, in fact she got the real deal.)

I found several coin dealers at the Brocante. They have beautiful old French coins from the Middle Ages, 1100-1500 AD. Silver coins from Richard the Lion Heart and Henry II. 

One dealer showed me a coin from 1773, a silver ecu with Louis XV aged head on it. “Ce n’est pas argent, c’est un fouree.” He confides in me, this one is not real silver, it is a fake. 

Fouree translates as “stuffed,” a base metal core covered with a thin layer of silver. Over time most of the silver coating has worn off. I appreciate his honesty and buy it to compare to an authentic 1773 ecu that is solid silver.

When you compare them side by side you can see the difference. The real one weighs 29.10 grams and the fake only 27.15 grams. Sometimes it is hard to know when a fake is a fake.

France used gold and silver for money for over 1,000 years until 1789 when the revolution turned everything upside down. The National Assembly issued paper money, Assignats, and printed millions of them. Within five years they had lost 95 percent of their value as they were not backed by anything. 

Counterfeiters printed and flooded the market with fake Assignats, even copying the dreaded warning on each note: “The Penalty for Counterfeiting is Death.” 

By 1795 the politicians had to come up with another kind of money and they produced Promesse de Mandats Territorial, more paper money but this time purported to be backed by the lands that had been confiscated from the aristocracy and the church. 

But by 1798 those paper promises had also become worthless, the economy was in a great depression and the people starving. 

Enter Napoleon Bonaparte, he engineered a coup d’etat, and he reorganized the French finances restoring gold and silver as the only acceptable forms of currency. No more paper money. The French revolutionary experiment in modern monetary theory had failed. 

Hard money returned from the secret hiding places where folks hid it during the revolution and the economy began to revive.

Scene Four. We are back home in Wenatchee. I found a great book from the British Museum, Fake! The Art of Deception. 

It has photos of over 600 wonderful objects, paintings, statues, coins and carvings that are “fake” or counterfeit. Many of them fooled the greatest art experts in the world.

The book asks some existential questions: What is real? Can a copy become real? Can a fake be a great work of art? If a copy of a painting by Botticelli was so good that it convinced the Director of the British Museum that it was real, and it hung in the gallery for 100 years, is it a fake or not?

 For thousands of years people have copied great art, sometimes honestly but often to deceive. 

Some collectors seek out fakes, counterfeits, falsos, fourees. One man tried to assemble a collection of Roman silver deniers, the 12 Roman Emperors from Julius Caesar to Domitian. But he did not want the real coins, those are fairly easy to find. He wanted to find the “fouree” or fake coins. 

The most difficult was the coin minted by a rebel leader, Vindex, who tried to overthrow Nero and failed. He clearly did not mint many coins. 

These are 2,000-year-old counterfeit coins, silver coatings on a copper base. The coins are rare and it took him 18 years to find them all. In fact these 13 “fouree” deniers (12 emperors plus Vindex who only minted coins for three months in 68 AD before he was killed in battle) are worth more than the 13 original coins! Rareity equals value.

So which monies are real, solid, trustworthy? 

None are backed up by precious metal anymore. The Euro is based on a currency union, will it last? The British Pound is at risk due to the uncertainty of Brexit. China wants it’s Yuan to become a reserve currency but few people trust it. 

Our paper money is not backed up by gold. It is not much different than a counterfeit Roman denarius, a copper coin covered with a thin layer of silver. It is not much different than an Argentinian peso, a piece of paper backed up by a government promise to pay. 

Our money is simply a promise to pay by the U.S. government. And our government is based on 300 years of English Common law, which protects private property and upholds contracts. We are blessed to live in a Democratic Republic. 

Our money is not perfect, but it is the best house in a bad neighborhood. And that is good enough for me. 

Now, can I interest you in a few Bitcoins, or the new Facebook currency Libra? They certainly will hold their value, won’t they?

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  1. Joy says:

    Learned a lot, and great writing. Thank you

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