The Art in American Finance

10 BerkShares bill, local currency for the Berkshires region; image on bill is "Turnips on Table" by Janet Rickus

10 BerkShares bill, local currency for the Berkshires region; image on bill is “Turnips on Table” by Janet Rickus

Have you ever wondered how US financial markets work?  or why gold is so revered?  or how the US Dollar came to be?  If so, head on down to the Museum of American Finance, appropriately located on Wall Street.

When Europeans first landed on these shores, they encountered various tribes of Native peoples, who used beads, beaver pelts and other items for trade, which were then adopted as legal tender in the Colonies during the 17th century.  Even after the US Mint was established in 1787, other forms of currency – foreign, private, local, and bank-issued  – were used along side official US money.  In the Museum’s display cases, you’ll find hundreds of specimens of bills and coins from colonial through modern times. 

US Fifty Dollar bill

US Fifty Dollar bill

It’s clear that currency is more than just a means of payment; the images that decorate it – often historical or mythological – are chosen to convey and reinforce the issuer’s view of the society’s beliefs, ideals, and values.  It’s hard to do that with block chain technology!

In the cases you’ll find several novelties such as as Raymond’s Oyster 2-bit bill, a shilling bearing the inscription “‘tis death to counterfeit”, and a wooden nickel that circulated during the Depression. Be sure to use the touch screens that explain and let you examine these items up close, and allow you to appreciate their artistry.

Starburst Jewelry, 1940, Tiffany & Co.

Starburst Jewelry, 1940, Tiffany & Co.

The Museum has several displays on gold:  one which explore’s this precious metal’s uses (in finance, medicine), religious significance, and role as a signifier of quality (think Gold Medal flour).

Another display illustrates gold’s role in US history:  how it was discovered in the US, how it is mined (lots of nasty chemicals – a ton of ore contains only 1/10th of an ounce of gold) and turned into objects, as well as how it is used in finance.  Lest anyone get the idea to revive alchemy, the exhibit also informs us that since gold is an element, it can only be created from gold atoms, rendering the transformation of base metals into this precious one impossible.  You’ll also find a small exhibit with gold jewelry – contemporary pieces by Marla Aaron, some vintage ones from Tiffany & Co., some from private collections.  Next to it is a separate exhibit with work by jewelry artist Sidney Mobell, who renders everyday objects such as mailboxes and garbage cans in gold. 

NYC Tax Relief Bond

NYC Tax Relief Bond

The largest pat of the floor is devoted to financial markets:  you can watch videos which explain how the NYSE, as well as the futures, options, commodities and bond markets work.    Bonds have been used to finance everything from the Louisiana Purchase to railroads, and a large case displays bond certificates issued by the Federal government, as well as ones issued by state and local governments and corporations.  A lot of care has gone into designing these instruments, and they’re often a delight to look at. You’ll find the NYC Tax Relief Bond of 1869; the Erie Canal Bond of 1848; as well as as the 1945 US War Bonds sporting images of Disney characters, among others in the Museum’s extensive holdings. 

Not surprisingly, there’s a room dedicated to Alexander Hamilton, who was not only George Washington’s “principle and most confidential aide,” but also the first US Secretary of the Treasury,  who created a national bank, and put the new republic on more solid financial footing, among other things. In addition to displays on Hamilton’s life, there are also his letters and examples of his published works.  The Museum sits on the former site of the Bank of New York, which was founded by Hamilton, and his room in the Museum was originally the bank president’s office.

Fortune Magazine cover

Fortune Magazine cover

There’s lots more to see – so if you want to deepen you knowledge of US currency and markets, while appreciating the artistry of financial instruments, a visit to the Museum of American Finance is in order.

The Museum also holds events throughout the year.  On July 12th, Jeff Gramm will talk about his book “Dear Chairman, Boardroom Battles and the Rise of Shareholder Activism” 

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