Paper Money

Noonans sale features Europe’s first known paper money

After his defeat and death, it became illegal to own anything with the signature of British General Charles George Gordon, so possessing this note could have brought a possible death penalty.

Images courtesy of Noonans.

The Trevor Wilkin Collection of Siege Notes will be offered at an auction by Noonans in London on May 30. The 159 lots of mostly crudely made notes are similar in that regard to siege money coinage, but the notes are less well-known to most collectors.

The sale commences with three pieces of what is often called Europe’s first paper money, issued by the Dutch city of Leiden in 1573 to 1574 while it was under siege from the Spanish during the Eighty Years and the Anglo-Spanish Wars. It was made with paper from prayer books that was pasted together and pressed into coin dies. If split or damaged, these “paper coins” still show the biblical book text. This is followed by notes from the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars, the European Revolutions of 1848 and 1849, the Siege of Khartoum, and South Africa’s Boer War.

Noonans’ Andrew Pattison says that Wilkin, an Australian collector and dealer who died in 2002, was most proud of an April 25, 1884, 1-piastre piece from the Siege of Khartoum, Sudan, believed to be the only example in private hands, and which resulted from one of the most dramatic events in colonial African history.

The Siege of Khartoum began on March 13, 1884, when it was placed under a military blockade by al-Mahdi, a Sudanese religious leader, and his followers. The city was defended by an Egyptian garrison under the British general Charles George Gordon, who was also instructed by his superiors to evacuate the city. Khartoum was captured on Jan. 26, 1885, and the defenders, including Gordon, were slaughtered.

The British fell into control of Sudan because of its domination of Egypt in 1882. The conflict with the Mahdi army was inherited, as it rose in rebellion against whatever the occupying force was. Instead of abandoning the city, Gordon had decided to fortify it, a fatal error, as local tribes joined the rebels, swelling the size of the Mahdi army to around 50,000 fighters.

The British and Egyptians held out for 10 months, but supplies dwindled, and the inhabitants of the city were threatened with starvation. After doing too little to help for too long, the British government sent a relief force, but it arrived too late; realizing the reinforcements would, however, soon outnumber them, the Mahdi army launched a nighttime assault and took the city, killing the entire garrison, including Gordon, and thousands of others. This led to the withdrawal of the British and the establishment of a so-called theocracy that would last until 1898.

Along with engaging the Mahdi, Gordon also had to keep the city running. In April 1884, he issued emergency currency. The first issue notes were in sums of 1, 5, 10, 20, 100, 500, 1,000, 2,000, 2,500 and 5,000 piastres, and a note for fifty Egyptian pounds. They were printed on card stock using a lithographic process, the text in Arabic, with the seal of the governor-general printed in both English and Arabic on the higher denomination notes. All bore the date “25 April 1884,” and production continued for the next six or seven months. They took the form of promissory notes with Gordon’s personal guarantee and the backing of the Egyptian government. Estimates are that the equivalent of up to £50,000 was issued within four months.

Gordon initially signed all the notes personally, but as the issue grew, his signature was added by gelatin-based duplication that proved so unpopular with traders that Gordon returned to signing by hand.

It may seem counterintuitive for the lowest value in a bank note series to be the most valuable, but Pattison explains, “Part of the reason the 1-piastre is so rare is that it was made illegal to own anything with Gordon’s name on it, so it wasn’t worth risking the possible death penalty for a tiny amount of money. As a result, there are far greater numbers of the higher denominations than the lower.”

The note is described as hand-signed by General Gordon and in very fine condition, with two tiny pinholes and stained but with no significant folds. Its value is estimated at £10,000 to £15,000 ($12,550 to $18,820 U.S.). The other denominations in the series are also represented in the collection. Information can be found at  https://www.noonans.co.uk.

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