Paper Money

Painting depicts barrels overflowing with money

One of the most coveted trompe l’oeil paintings of money is set to highlight Sotheby’s American Paintings sale in New York City on May 18. The painting measures 26 by 30 inches and is estimated to sell for $80,000 to $120,000.

Victor Dubreuil’s Barrels of Money is signed by the artist and was painted circa 1897. It has a provenance that starts with T. O’Brien, who acquired the picture from the artist in 1897.

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Its first offering at auction was in 1989, and it would soon be acquired in 1992 by the Masco Corp. in Taylor, Mich., where it was widely exhibited as part of the corporate collection.

The picture was included in the important 1988 exhibit by New York’s Berry-Hill Galleries Old Money: American Trompe L’Oeil Images of Currency and was illustrated in the catalog twice.

In an accompanying review of the exhibition in the Nov. 25, 1988, New York Times, art historian Bruce Chambers, who organized the exhibition, said that the paintings remain popular because the social concerns of the 19th century are similar to those of today. Nearly three decades later, his words remain true: “You had major shifts in the economy, with major controversies over monetary policy,” Chambers said, adding, “There was the creation of great personal fortunes, and it was a time when not only bankers but farmers were obsessed with the life styles of the rich and famous — Mrs. Astor’s new pearl necklace, Mr. Carnegie’s new yacht.”

A 2011 exhibit titled Taxing Visions: Financial Episodes in Late Nineteenth-Century American Art, at California’s Huntington Library included Dubreuil’s work, but his hyperrealist depictions of money most interest academics when he was engaging in satire.

The artist’s more straightforward works, like Barrels of Money, are most popular with collectors.

Identifiable notes

Dubreuil most often painted the notes he saw — $1, $2 and $5 bills — and his larger-denomination notes are based more on imagination than reality.

Dustin Johnston, director of currency auctions at Heritage, identified more than a dozen individual notes in the picture, including a Series 1886 $1 silver certificate and a Series 1880 $2 United States note in the stack at the lower left.

In the center of the picture is an 1891 $1 Treasury note, while the barrels have various notes including an 1880 $5 United States note, multiple 1891 $1 Treasury notes and 1891 $2 Treasury notes, and fantasy $100 and $1,000 notes.

Dubreuil’s money barrel paintings have several common elements: there are typically multiple barrels filled with stacks of money, and at least one bank note is always folded over the rim in an obvious manner that highlights the portrait of an American patriot on the note. Each barrel painting has a unique variant, such as one that depicts the shadow of an unseen hand reaching for bills stacked on the floor. Another painting features French 1,000-franc notes and a revolver sitting atop a stack.

On a similar painting by the artist, collector Mike Boyle wrote on Jan. 17, 2013, on the site Artsy: “I love the look of the old-timey money in this painting, and if I ever become rich I am definitely going to roll just like this, with all of my dough stuffed willy-nilly into big barrels. But one question: Did people really use to store or transport money this way? And if so, why did they ever stop?”

Dubreuil used the barrel as a convenient vehicle to provide a context for depicting large amounts of paper money, though it was more fantasy than reality. Most internet searches relating barrels and money reference the popular TV series Breaking Bad where one mathematician estimates that a 55-gallon barrel filled with $100 notes would hold around $4 million.

Dubreuil’s realistic depiction of money entertained patrons of saloons where he displayed his work, but also drew the attention of the Secret Service to his work.

The artist was born in France in either 1842 or 1846 and enjoyed a career as an artist in New York City between 1880 and 1900. Around 1900 he returned to France as he was running an increasing risk of violating counterfeiting laws in the United States.

Yet even those who had the duty of enforcing the law were amused by his skill and some sources claim that one of his prized barrel paintings was confiscated from a Boston shop window and then presumably decorated the office of the head of the Secret Service, Chief Wilkie, in Washington, D.C.