Paper Money

Counterfeit crisis focus of famed painting for sale

An interesting visual document humanizing the problem of counterfeit money in the mid-19th century by American painter Daniel Huntington is set to be offered on Oct. 5 in New York City as part of Doyle’s American Paintings, Furniture and Decorative Arts auction. 

The painting, estimated at $35,000 to $55,000, depicts a complex narrative relating to the problem of counterfeit notes both in the United States and England in the 1850s. 

The Counterfeit Note was painted by Huntington in 1858 while he was traveling in Europe and exhibited the next year in London at The Royal Academy of Arts, where it was exhibited under the title The Doubtful Note. It was also reproduced as an engraving in the July 23, 1859, edition of The London Illustrated Times

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The picture then crossed the Atlantic Ocean and traveled to New York’s National Academy of Design’s 35th Annual Exhibition in 1860. It would be exhibited again in 1862 at The Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts where it was offered for sale and would soon sell to a New York collector, R.M. Olyphant. At the auction of his collection in 1877 it realized a then-impressive $475. 

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Huntington was best known for his historical compositions and portraits, making this narrative genre painting unusual among its works. It was clearly created to show off his talents in painting a variety of surfaces and effects. As Doyle’s describes, “it is an opulent picture, so rich in visual detail that it is a feast for the eyes. The variety shop is stocked floor to ceiling with inventory: baskets and buckets, brushes and cookware, straw hats and bright shawls hanging on rods up to the rafters, and bolts of vivid fabrics stacked neatly on shelves. Huntington must have delighted in the diversity of colors and textures as much as the challenge presented by so complex a composition.” 

Unfortunately for numismatists, the note in the picture is not depicted with enough specificity to allow identification, though audiences clearly understood that the merchants were inspecting a note to evaluate its legitimacy. 

A rich narrative

Henry Tuckerman’s 1867 Book of the Artists: American Artist Life discussed then-contemporary art, singling out this picture and its rich narrative. Tuckerman described the picture as follows: “a foreign-looking man, in dress, expression, and air, typical of the roguish adventurer; he has evidently made a purchase and tendered a large bank-note in payment; this note the old shop-keeper is inspecting behind the counter, while his shrewd wife whispers her suspicions in his ear, and points significantly over her shoulder at the strange customer, who, with assumed indifference but cunning glances, awaits the result.” 

He contrasts this swarthy gentleman with the girl in the foreground, observing, “outside the counter sits a beautiful girl, dressed with a taste so appropriate, that we should think her costume alone would win scores of admirers; unconscious of what is going on she is ostensibly occupied in examining the quality of a fabric before her; but her air of refinement, the pure intellectuality of her countenance, and a certain superiority to the people and the scene around her, impress the spectator the more from the contrast; a lovely and tasteful English girl, she throws a beautiful charm over the whole.” 

Mysterious man, beautiful girl

What is the girl’s role in the narrative? Is she an accomplice of the “foreign-looking man” providing a cover for him to pass the counterfeit note, or merely an innocent bystander? 

Audiences in the mid-19th cen­tury were used to reading meaning into pictures and these narrative scenes enjoyed broad popularity. 

Stephen Mihm, writing in his 2009 book A Nation of Counterfeiters, placed this painting in a larger group of pictures where a well-dressed “confidence man” captures, then betrays the trust of his victims. 

He wrote, “Critics had different interpre­tations of the work when it was unveiled in the 1850s, but they generally agreed on one thing: the genteel bespectacled man with the walking cane (itself a totem of respectability) was trying to pass a counterfeit note. The shover, equal parts gentleman and confidence man, looks out of the corner of his eyes, a faint smile playing on his lips. As for the well-dressed woman seated in front, she too may be in on the fraud: note that her glove has been dropped in a most unladylike fashion on the floor. In the subtle vocabulary of genre painting, as among the appearance-obsessed middle classes, such details mattered. Perhaps she is his accomplice, trying to distract the storekeeper. An opening gambit like this helped set the stage for the opening act in this theatre of exchange: the passing of the counterfeit note.” (Mihm’s reference to a glove, which is no longer part of the painting, was based on a London newspaper engraving. A dog now appears in place of the glove and may be a modification.) 

These counterfeit note scams were widespread at the time and the circumstances were often reproduced in contemporary newspapers, largely due to the increasing ridiculousness of the situations. 

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Most typically, a flashy cus­tomer would engage a shop­keeper to show him items. A few minutes later another customer — his accomplice — would come in, looking plain, proper, and playing the part of a trustworthy individual. 

The flashy man would pur­chase an item using a counterfeit note and when the note was questioned the accomplice would pronounce it as genuine, providing seemingly “independent” verification. 

As counterfeit notes improved in quality, so did the ingenuity of those individuals trying to pass off false notes. These stories were often pre­sented as lessons in morality: both in terms of the obvious “badness” of those passing the initial false note and the subsequent challenges faced by modest shopkeepers holding a bad note. Should they absorb the loss or pass the note on, to another unassuming individual? 

These stories were well-known to audiences viewing the picture and the meaning went far beyond an entertaining picture of good-looking people engaged in bad acts. 

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