By Rebecca Smith
L’ Avare (The Miser) is one of Molière’s best-known plays. First performed in 1668 and published in 1669, it revolves around protagonist Harpagon’s total obsession with l’argent (money) to the detriment of everyone and everything in his life.
Oh, if only Harpagon could have lasted another 3 centuries - what a thrill would have awaited him! His progenitor and his greatest purpose in life – together in one.
In July of 1959, the Banque de France unveiled the 500-Franc Molière banknote, marked “nouveau franc, or, NF”.
The original “franc” named a gold coin minted in 1360 by King John II. In the 1600s such coins were no longer minted, but the term continued to be used to refer to a new coin, the “livre tournois”. The first paper currency was issued in 1701, but crashed in 1720 due to overproduction. A second attempt failed in 1793. In 1795 the republican government of the French Revolution instituted the 5-franc silver piece and later the 20-franc gold piece. The franc, divided into 10 decimos and 100 centimes, became the established French currency unit in 1799. In 1803 the Bank of France was given authority to distribute paper francs but only in high amounts and for restricted use. In 1857 the first 50-franc notes were made available for widespread use.
In 1950, after World War II, 5-, 10- and 20-franc notes were replaced by coins. A few years later 50- and 100-franc notes went the same route. In 1954, 10,000-franc notes were presented and, in April 1956, the Bank of France was set to introduce a new 50,000-franc banknote featuring the portrait of Georges Clemenceau. The plan was cut short, however, when further monetary reforms were announced. The bank then chose to design smaller value banknotes and Moliere’s was one of the portraits chosen.
Molière wasn't the only, or even the first, author honored; Victor Hugo preceded him. Henry IV, Richelieu and Napoleon made appearances; Pascal followed him. Sadly, these notable items of tender were relatively short-lived. Printed between July 1959 and January 1966, they were withdrawn from circulation as of March 9, 1970 and ceased to be legal tender 30 April 1971.
So Harpagon would have had a little more than a decade to bask in his named glory. And with his sole focus on wealth value, he would have had shown little appreciation for the art and social significance of the note.
The image was designed by Jean Lefeuvre and engraved by Jules Piel and André Marliat. The premiere colors were of reds, browns and ochers and it measured 182 mm x 97 mm. The watermark was of Armande Béjart of the renowned Béjart theater family. She was one of the most famous French stage actors of the 17th-century and also, of course, the wife/muse of Molière and the daughter of Madeleine Béjart, with whom he cofounded the IllustreThéâtre in 1643. Thus, it wasn’t just the playwright esteemed on the note but his family and theater company, as well.
Those unique and endearing elements have even more impact now that the Euro has replaced the no-longer-legal-tender-since-2002 franc, and all traces of French national character and history have gone missing. Every Euro shows the EU flag, the signature of the President of the European Central Bank, the Bank’s initials in different EU languages, a listing of EU territories and an enumeration of security features.
But then, only the denomination would have mattered to Harpagon.
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