Paper Money

Venezuelan notes get life as raw material for artists

Artists are using worthless bank notes of Venezuela to create art, such as these elaborate handbags. A single bag may require 1,000 different notes.

Image provided by Arthur L. Friedberg.

Venezuela’s completely worthless currency has a chance at a new life, as long as it’s not as money.

The country’s economic crisis that began in 2010 under President Hugo Chavez and continued under his successor, Nicolas Maduro, resulted in a rate of inflation that rendered its currency valueless. In a recent issue of Forbes, Steve Hanke, professor of economics at The Johns Hopkins University, calculated a hyperinflation rate for 2018 of 80,000 percent for 2018. Other estimates go as high as 2 million percent.

Maduro knocked five zeroes off the bolivar in August and created the bolívare soberanos or sovereign bolivar, issued in values of 2-, 5-, 10-, 20-, 50-, 100-, 200- and 500-bolívares soberanos denominations. These are already worthless.

counterfeit 1913-S Indian head, Bison on Plains 5-cent coinInside Coin World: Mint mark key to identifying counterfeit: A fake 1913-S Buffalo nickel, foreign coins pulled from Roosevelt dime rolls and 1873 Seated Liberty half dollars are column topics in the March 11, 2019, issue of Coin World.

There is a better use for them across the border in Cucuta, Colombia. That city is flooded with them from the 20,000 people who enter Colombia daily and exchange them to buy necessities. Since the bolivares cannot be spent, local artists, mostly emigres from across the border, are turning them into origami, including purses, model cars, birds, baskets and wallets.

One artist, Alvaro Rivera, makes handbags. In the Portland (Maine) Press Herald, he says he weaves them from 1,000 individual notes, totaling 100,000 bolivares in face value. Their exchange value in exchange offices in Cucuta is 17 U.S. cents. He sells the purses for $13. He says, “The price of the work has nothing to do with how many bills I use; what I’m selling is the art.”

Another artist, Wilmer Rojas, told Agence France Presse he gets his bills by picking them up off the street. He uses from 400 to 800 of them to make handbags of different sizes. He is also using bolivares to make a carnival costume for his daughter.

Graphic designer Jose Luis Leon has another approach. He makes drawings on the bills with marker and nail polish illustrating current events, tourist spots and cartoons. He said to Deutsche Welle that he has sold his work for up to $100 to buyers in the United States, and gets from $2 to $20 for each work locally.

The money art is also being sold by numerous vendors on the Etsy website.

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