Paper Money

Master note designer’s incredible (and fun) legacy

The designer of what many consider the most beautiful paper currency ever made, Robert Deodaat Emile Oxenaar (known as “Ootje”), died on June 13 in Manomet, Mass. He was 87. In his later years he taught graphic design at the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence. 

The news was brought to the collector world in an email newsletter, “Oxenaar’s Hidden Humour in Dutch Banknotes,” by the well-known Dutch dealer Laurens Schulman.

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Oxenaar designed two series of bank notes from 1966 to 1985 while he worked for de Nederlandsche Bank, the Dutch central bank. The first of them, called the “Erflaters 2” (“Testators 2”) series, featured portraits of key figures from the nation’s history. These notes, released beginning in the late 1960s, were distinguished by their bold colors, a rarity at the time, and the use of a white background. 

This series also had the first display of the artist’s use of inside jokes. On the 5-guilder note, without the bank’s knowledge, he almost invisibly etched his name, Ootje. Also, if you look closely at the image of Frans Hals’ face on the 10-guilder note, you’ll see that it has Oxenaar’s fingerprint. 

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In a 2007 interview in Creative Review, he revealed another fingerprint trick. As he explained, “On the 1000 guilder note, it became a ‘sport’ for me to put things in the notes that nobody wanted there! I was very proud to have my fingerprint in this note — and it’s my middle finger! It was too late when they found out and though the director saw it he said he wouldn’t stop the whole production.”

When it came time for a new series, Oxenaar had virtually free reign. After a redesign of the 5-guilder note, his next project was a new Dutch 100-guilder note. He was proud that on this one that he could replace Michiel de Ruyter, whom he called “our war criminal — the grand admiral” with a bird, the endangered water snipe. The note was a resounding popular success.

Next was the famous yellow 50-guilder note with a sunflower. The bee on the flower was not a burst of artistic inspiration. That was not its original location. It had not been glued properly on the mock-up and it moved around in the plastic folder until it landed on the flower by accident, where it stayed.

Schulman says Oxenaar’s biggest prank was his last, the 250-guilder note with the lighthouse. At the top of the structure he included three names: that of a secret friend, his girlfriend Ria’s, and his granddaughter Hannah’s. He also inserted a watermark of his girlfriend’s rabbit, so that people would walk around with her rabbit in their pocket. 

The designer spoke of his feelings abut currency design, as well as some of his tricks, in “The Money Maker,” an English language video on YouTube found below.

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