In 2002, Belgium was one of the twelve countries that introduced the euro banknotes and coins. Thus, after 170 years, the familiar Belgian francs disappeared permanently from our wallets. This month, the Spotlight focuses on the last series of Belgian franc banknotes. Indeed, although some people still convert euros to francs, the notes themselves often seem to have been forgotten already.
The last series of banknotes was put into circulation between 1994 and 1998. For these last series, the National Bank opted for depicting realistic portraits of famous Belgians for each denomination. Because this required meticulous elaboration, the notes were made more difficult to forge and, at the same time, they highlighted the cultural wealth of the country. Following previous series, this last series again featured Belgian artists. This time, the honour was awarded to artists whose work had strongly influenced 20th century art. Among those selected were painter James Ensor, musical instrument maker Adolphe Sax, painter René Magritte, painter-sculptor Constant Permeke and architect Victor Horta. The 10 000 BEF note bears the portrait of the royal couple. The designs were made by draughtsmen and engravers of the National Bank’s printing department. Draughtsman and engraver are always mentioned on the note, followed by ‘inv.’ (draughtsman) and ‘sculp.’ (engraver).
The last series of Belgian franc banknotes was brought in back in 1992, with the re-introduction after 48 years of a 10 000 F note. This note was dedicated to King Baudouin and Queen Fabiola and depicts their portrait and the parliamentary hemicycle on the front. The back shows the Royal Greenhouses of Laeken. Technically speaking, this 10 000 F note was the forerunner of the last Belgian franc banknotes. With it, a number of security features were introduced, such as optically variable ink and the security thread, which are still protecting our euro against counterfeiting today.
This new banknote meant the end of the 5 000 F notes. The latter disappeared in 1994, when the 2 000 F notes were also introduced as the first of the new series. Victor Horta was given the honour of becoming the face of this completely new denomination. As he was a prominent Art Nouveau architect, the note was designed in this style. The typical elements refer to his total works of art, such as the Solvay House in Brussels and Villa Carpentier in Renaix. One year later, the 100 F note was put into circulation. This note broke with the tradition of banknotes having to be illustrations of sobriety, virtuousness and diligence. Indeed, this note is devoted to the symbolist painter James Ensor, who is widely known for his satirical and critical view of reality.
The note contains clear references to Ensor’s native town Ostend, his penchant for the sea and his works of art. In 1996, the National Bank again came up with a remarkable new banknote. This time, the 200 F note was placed in circulation, with the image of the inventor of the saxophone, Adolphe Sax. This banknote, too, highlights Sax’s accomplishments and his native town Dinant. The Sax note was all the more remarkable as both its colour and its value were completely new.
As the introduction of the euro was gradually taking shape and the date was drawing closer, the National Bank still decided to put the last series completely – and sooner than planned – into circulation. Thus, two updated denominations were introduced in 1997: 1 000 F and 10 000 F. The portrait of Constant Permeke features on the 1 000 F note. This artist was one of the most important figures of the Flemish expressionist school. Again, the pictures on the note clearly refer to the portrayed artist’s life and works. Although a 10 000 F note had only been put into circulation in 1992, the National Bank nevertheless decided to replace this note as well. Thus, in 1997 banknotes appeared bearing the portrait of the new royal couple, King Albert II and Queen Paola. Finally, the series’ last banknote was put into circulation one year later. It was dedicated to the surrealist painter René Magritte. As with the previous banknotes, there are again references to the artist’s works. As the surrealist elements are clearly present, the banknote evokes a certain alienation, as do so many of Magritte’s works. The door between the two images on the front not only refers to Magritte’s works, it also adds another dimension. For soon, the door of the Belgian franc was to be locked and that of the euro opened. The keyhole in the right-hand corner constitutes the see-through register on the note. Thus, the technique perfectly fits the note’s aesthetics.
This series of banknotes displays a number of remarkable innovations. To start with, the note’s value is also mentioned in German for the first time. The front of the note always indicates the value in the mother tongue of the portrayed artist. On the reverse, the value is stated in the other official national language, and so here also in German. A second innovation has been mentioned before. For the first time, denominations of 200 and 2 000 F were put into circulation. There were two reasons to do so. On the one hand, there was a demand from the financial sector for a banknote that could be distributed via cash dispensers. The 2 000 F note met this demand. On the other hand, the Belgian banknotes were thus in accordance with European habits, as most countries were using a 1-2-5 series. This also made for an easier transition to the euro, as 200 Belgian francs are more or less equivalent to a 5 euro note and 2 000 F to a 50 euro note. These banknotes also offered a new method of identification to the visually impaired. From now on, the tangible bars in the left-hand corner indicated the value. The vertical bars represent the hundreds, thousands or ten thousands (‘I” = 00, ‘II’ = 000, ‘III’ = 0000). The horizontal bars multiply the vertical ones by 1, 2 or 5 (‘-‘ is 1, ‘=’ is 2, ‘=’ is 5).
Although these banknotes are no longer in circulation, there are still many of them in the possession of the general public. A little over 15 million banknotes (*) have not yet been returned to the National Bank, some 10 million of which are 100 F notes (*). These can still be exchanged at the National Bank, with no time limits. Who knows, a stack of James Ensor banknotes might turn up as a real treasure during spring-cleaning!
(*) These are the figures on 31 December 2012.
- DANNEEL, M., TE BOEKHORST, B. en RANDAXHE, Y., Adieu frank. Het boeiende verhaal van België en zijn geld, Tielt, 2001.
- National Bank of Belgium: Het Belgische bankbiljet, CD-ROM, 2001.
- NBB – Belgian banknotes 
- NBB – Belgian banknotes not exchanged 
- SALADE, M. (ed.), 2000!, brochure on the occasion of the issuance of the 2000 F banknote “Horta”.