On 5th May the NBB celebrates its 167th birthday. It might just as well have been its 256th birthday, if Barbe-Louis-Josèphe de Nettine (1706-1755) had not put a stop to that. The NBBmuseum gives an account of the events.
Nowadays, no-one is at all surprised to see a woman as the head of a company or even a government. But it is very surprising that that was even possible under the Ancien Régime, before the French Revolution. The case of Madame de Nettine, State Banker of the Austrian Netherlands in the 18th century, therefore certainly deserves our attention.
The government of the Austrian Netherlands, which existed from 1713 to 1794, used the services of private bankers to manage its finances. Recourse to a private bank saved the State the cost of an expensive administrative set-up. In return, the private bank received fees and had constant access to working capital which enabled it to conduct its private banking business.
From 1744, it was Mathias Nettine, or rather the Banque Nettine, that performed the role of State Cashier. When Mathias died, his widow and the mother of his six children, Barbe-Louise-Josèphe, took over and successfully continued the banking operations of her late husband. And there were some advantages in being a widow. Freed from her husband’s control, she also had the material and financial resources necessary for such an enterprise…
On becoming the State Banker, Madame Nettine played a key role as the government adviser to the Minister Plenipotentiary Cobenzl, a sort of Prime Minister, who acknowledged her great business acumen. And she certainly had flair. Indeed, she became a shareholder in a large number of manufacturing companies.
In 1758, in recognition of her close links with power, the Empress Maria Theresa granted her the title of viscountess. She then became Madame “de” Nettine. Her influence over the Minister Cobenzl was such that her adverse opinion was enough to persuade him to suspend the plan for creating a national bank in the southern Netherlands, a project which was probably against the widow’s interests. It was almost another hundred years before such an institution was established: namely the National Bank of Belgium, founded in 1850.