The color of money
A Honolulu artist recreates the currency that disappeared with the old Hawaii
QUOTH Voltaire, "Paper money eventually returns to its intrinsic value -- zero." Ouch! Which might explain why so few bills remain from the Hawaiian Kingdom. During an amnesty period around the turn of the century, local banks swapped fresh American paper money for the rapidly devaluing Hawaiian Kingdom notes. Overnight, Kalakaua's experiment in creating a Hawaiian paper-money system evaporated.
But one Honolulu man is making sure we don't forget. Dennis Fitzgerald, a Realtor who dabbles in art, has spent the last decade restoring the details of the kingdom's paper money, pixel-by-pixel on a computer, and researching the background of the now-vanished currency ...
Wait a minute. There was Hawaiian money?
"It started about 1879," explained local numismatologist Don Medcalf of Hawaiian Island Stamp and Coin. "The American Bank Note Company out of New York -- who designed everyone's money at the time -- was pretty rushed to create it. They picked some scenes from South American currency to put on the Hawaiian money. The only bill to actually have a vignette of Kalakaua was the $500 bill, and only 200 of those were printed."
Most have disappeared. "There are only five known copies of the $100 bills and they're all in terrible condition," Medcalf said. "A $10 bank note from the estate of Samuel Mills Damon was auctioned last year for $268,000."
Complicating things, said Medcalf, are reprints of the money made as souvenirs. "Even Duke Kahanamoku printed up copies of the $100 to give away. The real thing, though, is worth thousands."
So, woppajaws, Voltaire. Fitzgerald's reprints take it a step further. Not only has he lovingly restored the engraved detail when possible, he's colorized the notes as if they had been printed in a full range of hues. The result is rather attractively Victorian and, as Fitzgerald is the first to admit, turns the notes into artwork rather than collectibles.
"Like many people, I had no idea that such bills existed," said Fitzgerald. "The library had some pictures of the original notes, but from the time the bills vanished in 1910, to the invention of the Internet, no one had really seen them. I started with the highest-quality photographs I could find, and from there started restoring the engraving details using PhotoShop under high magnifications."
The original bills were printed with black and green or brown ink. Pretty dull. "An artist friend commented on how pretty they would be if colored, so I added tints that weren't garish or neon, very period in appearance."
Fitzgerald reproduces the bills as artwork, mounted in archival frames with period postcards or maps, with provenance sheets attached to the back. They're sold in upscale venues such as Martin & MacArthur for about $50 to $300, although a tourist-friendly store chain is interested in unframed versions.
"Most people comment that they had no idea the Hawaiian Kingdom had such a sophisticated currency. One of the things that define a nation is its currency," said Fitzgerald.
And, other than the colors, there's another way to differentiate Fitzgerald's reproductions from the once-legal tender: "That's my signature on the Secretary of the Treasury line!" laughed Fitzgerald.