Monday 19 March 2018

Treasures: Cashing in on your money

Ireland’s fine arts, antiques and collectables column

Old Irish bank notes
Old Irish bank notes
Half crown

Eleanor Flegg

Do you have a shoebox of old Irish currency under the bed? If you bring it into the Central Bank on Dublin's Dame Street, they'll still change old money into euro. But you might want to think twice before handing over your stash. Keeping your money under the mattress can be the smartest thing you can do with it.

"If you take an uncirculated £100 Lady Lavery banknote from 1977 to the Central Bank, you'll get €127 for it," says Louis Walsh of Treasures Irish Art, Athlone. "But if you take it to an antique dealer, you might get up to €1,000." A £50 note from the same year could also be worth around €1,000, but only if it was uncirculated.

A used note in pleasing condition from the 1970s could be worth around €300, but soiled, torn, or scribbled-on notes are worth no more than their face value. "The best thing you can do with grubby notes is take them down to the Central Bank," he says.

Ireland's A Series banknotes, issued by the Free State in 1928, are known as Lady Lavery notes. Their signature portrait of an archetypal Irish girl, leaning on a harp and staring dreamily into the distance, is reputedly based on Sir John Lavery's portrait of his wife, Hazel. Intended apolitical but Celtic in flavour, they were designed by John Harrison of Waterlow and Sons Ltd, London.

Like the coat of green paint so swiftly applied to the post boxes, Ireland's new banknotes were intended to give the old British infrastructure a hasty coating of Irishness. The currency itself was fixed to sterling, and remained so until Ireland joined the European monetary system in 1978. Lady Lavery ran concurrently with a lovely series known as 'ploughman notes', which were issued by eight individual banks. These too are worth good money. "A £1 ploughman note in pleasing condition could be worth at least €300," says Walsh. The notes issued by some of the banks are rarer than others, and hence more valuable, with notes from the Northern Bank the rarest of all.

An uncirculated note from a rare bank might be worth as much as €2,000.

It's probably too soon to get excited about B Series (1976-1993) and C Series (1992-2001) banknotes, but they may still be worth more as collectibles than their euro exchange rate.

The B Series £1, featuring a portrait of the historic Queen Maeve, was the last £1 note to be printed in Ireland. An uncirculated example would be worth around €20. In banknotes, rarity trumps age. The short-lived £100 note featuring Charles Stuart Parnell, issued in 1996, is now worth between €400 and €500 in pristine condition. The banknote was only issued once and ceased to be legal tender in 2002 when it was overtaken by the euro.

Coins too are valued according to their rarity rather than their age. Irish half-crowns and florins from 1943 are especially prized.

They were struck at the Royal Mint in Ireland, like all Irish coins of the period, but were never issued. The Central Bank of Ireland decided to change the silver content of the coins and the unissued coins were returned to the Royal Mint and melted down.

A few slipped through the net and are now highly collectible. A 1943 florin, which shows the salmon that would later grace the 10p coin, could now be worth anything from €4,500 (in fine condition) to €32,000 (in the condition that collectors describe as "gem uncirculated"). A 1943 half crown, which shows the horse, could fetch anything between €160 and €4,200. Unsurprisingly, there are a number of fakes in circulation.

"People like tend to like the Irish coins that were in circulation between 1928 and the 1940s," says John Weldon of John Weldon Auctioneers. But the engaging barnyard coins, designed by Percy Metcalf, were not always so popular.

When the Irish Free State's new coinage was released in 1928, the public reaction included a certain amount of "down with that sort of thing". The historian Ewan Morris quotes an anonymous critic: "If these pagan symbols once get a hold, then is the thin edge of the wedge of freemasonry sunk into the very life of our Catholicity, for the sole object of having these pagan symbols instead of religious emblems on our coins is to wipe out all traces of religion from our minds, to forget the 'land of saints,' and beget a land of devil-worshippers, where evil may reign supreme."

Others wondered if the pig, long associated with the Irish in caricature, was an appropriate symbol of the nation. An uncirculated leat pingin from 1933 is now worth between €300 and €550, pig and all.

The designs were eventually approved by the Coinage Design Committee, led by the poet WB Yeats, although some of the drawings were modified on the advice of agricultural experts. Yeats apparently regretted that "the state of the market for pig's cheeks" led to a slimline pig that was "better merchandise but less living" (History Ireland 2004).

"The trouble with valuing coins is that the condition isn't always obvious," Weldon explains. "I've had two collectors in here arguing over a 1937 shilling. It's a rare year and they couldn't agree if the condition was very fine or extra fine. They were getting very animated and I couldn't help feeling - it's only 5p at the end of the day!"


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