It’s all too easily forgotten, but money, whether in the shape of notes or coins, has always been an endorsement of the history of the society under which it was created. So, it is natural that great figures and significant events are featured on banknotes. For the month of November, this latest edition of the Museum’s Object of the Month turns its attention to a very specific series of Belgian banknotes: the Dynasty series, issued just after the Second World War. And in this series, the history of Belgium is given pride of place.
As from 1938, the National Bank of Belgium envisaged issuing a new series of banknotes denominated in Belgian francs which would for the first time bear the effigies of the country’s entire royal dynasty, hence the series’ name “Dynastie”. Four denominations were originally planned: the 10 000-franc note with Leopold I’s portrait, 1000 francs featuring Albert I, 500 francs with Leopold II and, last but not least, 100 francs with King Leopold III, the reigning sovereign at the time. Although the series had been arranged as early as 1939, the outbreak of the Second World War disrupted the plans and they had to be postponed.
The German occupation effectively saw national coins and notes in circulation alongside banknotes issued by a public institution established under German law (Reichskreditkassenscheine), necessity banknotes issued by the local authorities, and people even resorting to barter. However, the National Bank did not lose sight of its Dynasty series project, and got down to work on drawing up a completely new printing technique, copperplate. This technique, which would eventually replace letterpress printing, enabled improvements in both the look of the banknotes as well as their protection against counterfeiting.
Unfortunately, plans for compiling the series were going to run into trouble. First of all, there was the realisation that a 10 000-franc note would be too big after the post-war monetary reform plan (the famous “Opération Gutt”) and thus of no use. So it was never issued. Leopold I then no longer had a banknote bearing his image…or at least in theory! At that time, Belgium was rocked by a major controversy: the Royal Question. In 1940, the King, who was the head of the Belgian armed forces under martial law, surrundered to the Germans, against the advice of the government which wanted to continue hostilities. This unilateral decision severely tested the sovereign’s popularity, to such an extent that it was not at all shocking to replace the portrait of Leopold III on the 100-franc banknote by that of the first King of the Belgians! So, owing to economic necessities and political crises, Leopold III did not get to have his own banknote. It is especially remarkable to see that even as common an item as the banknote could be a witness and, above all, an illustration of these historical troubles.
But that wasn’t the end of the problems. Still owing to wartime circumstances, the Dynasty series could not be printed in copperplate, as the engraver and designer Jules Vanpaemel had prepared for, but still had to be in letterpress. Furthermore, in 1945, Belgium had to enlist the help of the Banque de France to be able to print the first seven million 500-franc notes. And to crown this ill-fated series, it turned out that the Dynasty series was easy to forge…
Now let’s take a look at the three banknote denominations that were put into circulation. Each one of them illustrates significant historical facts from the reigns of the three monarchs, with there always being a link between the front and the back. Generally speaking, the Dynasty series is distinguishable from the previous series by its much lighter designs and adornments. The front is always divided into three parts: the royal portrait, the seal and the frame containing the watermark. The 100-franc note bearing the effigy of Leopold I features the portrait of the King on the front, along with a view of the Place Royale in Brussels, where the first King of the Belgians was sworn in on 21 July 1831. The reverse side depicts the Joyeuse Entrée – the Joyous Entry of the King into Brussels. It should be noted that, at the time, the writing on banknotes was in two languages: French on the front, Dutch on the back.
The 500-franc note is dedicated to Léopold II. Apart from the royal portrait, the front shows a view over the city of Antwerp and its port. For the reverse side, it was a key feature of Leopold II’s reign that was chosen: the colonisation of the Congo, with a scene showing Africans on the riverbanks. Using the country’s wealth enabled Belgium to boost its port activities on its own territory, notably in Antwerp.
Finally, we turn to the last banknote in the series, as a homage to Albert I, depicted wearing an army helmet as a reminder of his bravery during the First World War. Alongside the King is the Congress Column and the tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Brussels. On the back, a view of the Flemish commune of Veurne that was chosen, because of the severity of the fighting that was raging there and which largely destroyed it.
Owing to the high number of fakes, the Dynasty series was replaced in 1950-1952 by another one that would retain the theme of royal portraits but which would at the same time commemorate the National Bank’s centenary. Consequently, this new series was quite naturally called “Centenaire”. But this time, the copperplate printing technique really was used, thus giving the banknotes the modernity originally intended for the Dynasty series notes.
- BOEKHORST Ben te, DANNEEL Marianne and RANDAXHE Yves, Adieu franc. La Belgique et sa monnaie, une belle histoire, 2001, pp.70-73.
- DELBART Philippe, L’évolution du billet de banque belge (1850-1979) du point de vue historique, technique et esthétique, Institut supérieur d’Etudes sociales de l’Etat, Section des bibliothécaires documentalistes, 1979, pp.93-96.
- DEPRÊTRE Vincent, Billets belges. La série Dynastie, article written for a presentation on 14 December 1998 at the Cercle numismatique de Nice in France, October 1998.
- La Monnaie et le Portrait royal. 1830-1991, Exhibition catalogue, Exhibition held from 22 March to 15 September 1991 by the National Bank of Belgium’s numismatic and historical Museum on the occasion of the 60th and 40th royal anniversary festivities, 1991.
- Le franc belge. Monnaies et billets belges depuis 1830, 1989, pp.245-248, 272-277.