A few weeks ago, in the print and digital editions of April 30 issue
of Coin World, I asked in my Editorial, “Why is the United
States so bad at designing paper money?” I would like to rephrase that
question here, “Why is the United States so slow when designing paper money?”
The April 3 Editorial was spurred by the announcement that for the
second year in a row, the International Bank Note Society’'s Banknote
of the Year Award had gone to a new note issued by Switzerland. The
2017 winner was the nation’s new 10-franc note, with the 50-franc
note, released in 2016, the winner of that year’s award.
I lamented that since 2004, when the IBNS competition was
introduced, the United States had never issued a note that won the
award; in fact, a new Federal Reserve note had been nominated just one
time, in 2013. I saw this as something of an indictment of the
artistic quality of modern Federal Reserve notes.
Part of the problem may lie in the fact that a lot of agencies are
involved in the creation of new paper money designs in the United
States: the Treasury Department, the Bureau of Engraving and Printing,
the Secret Service, and the Federal Reserve. The notes are designed by
committee, with aesthetic issues apparently considered less important
than the anti-counterfeiting properties used in any new note.
Protecting our paper currency from counterfeiters is important, of
course, but so is artistic quality.
The design-by-committee approach is nothing new and notes in other
countries are designed in much the same way. However, in the United
States, the process seems to take forever.
The Daily Beast reported recently that the next $20 note is
unlikely to be released until 2026. It will replace the current
version, first released in 2003. If the BEP is correct in that the
next version of the denomination will not see release until 2026, that
is a 23-year gap between release of the two generations of notes. In
paper money terms, that is forever.
Other countries are much faster at designing, printing, and
releasing new notes. The Bank of Canada unveiled its new $10 note,
depicting civil rights hero Viola Desmond, in February 2018, exactly
two years after officials announced that the theme of the note would
be a prominent Canadian woman. Canada staged a public referendum on
who to depict on the note; selected a winner; redesigned the
denomination; and unveiled newly printed notes, all in the span of two years.
In the United States, the theme for the next $20 note was also
announced two years ago, with Treasury Secretary Jack Lew revealing
that abolitionist Harriet Tubman would displace Andrew Jackson on the
face of the note, with the controversial president to be moved to the
back of the note. Lew also announced new themes for the $5 and $10
notes at the same time, and promised that officials would work at
expediting the redesign of the three denominations.
However, a new administration is in charge and Lew’s replacement,
Steven Mnuchin, has not committed to any of the new design themes for
the $5 and $10 issues, nor to placing Tubman’s portrait on the $20
note. He has said that anti-counterfeiting properties will take
priority over any thematic/design changes.
Thematic redesign and security enhancements could be developed in
tandem, of course, and usually are.
No matter what designs will appear on the new notes, it could be
2020 before a new $10 note is unveiled, with the other denominations
not scheduled until much later. If Canada can issue a new note (one
that has a lot of high-tech anti-counterfeiting technology) in two
years, why can't the United States?