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There is nothing like a Dame

This article was originally printed in Bank Note Reporter.
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By Kerry Rodgers

An interpretation of the original colors of the Dame of Elche by Francisco Vives based on analyses made by Salvador Rovira, Museo Arqueológico Nacional. (Image Wikipedia Commons.)

An interpretation of the original colors of the Dame of Elche by Francisco Vives based on analyses made by Salvador Rovira, Museo Arqueológico Nacional. (Image Wikipedia Commons.)

Bank notes are a great place to learn stuff. In March of last year I had never heard of the Dame of Elche. Then in April I experienced a full frontal confrontation. She is remarkable.

The Dame contributes her effigy to the left face of a rare Spanish 100 pesetas, Pick-90. She also provides the watermark. One of these notes was featured as Lot 1332 in Spink’s April 2103 paper money sale. I had casually flicked past this lot description in my initial scan of the catalogue. Spanish notes are not my thing. It was only when I digested the prices realized that I took time to check this particular note out more carefully. I realized I had missed a stunner.

Some notes are designed before their time. Only in retrospect can these be seen to have been design leaders. I suspect Spain P-90 is one such. It dates from 1938, a day and age when the Bank of England had still not gotten around to using color for its higher denomination notes.

The face design evokes two aspects of the early history of Elche, a landlocked city in the Alicante province of south-eastern Spain.

Settlement by Ionian Greeks took place in this region around 600 B.C. They set up a colony called Helike at a site some 10 km distant from modern Elche. The note’s design recalls this initial phase of settlement.

At the lower center the note’s face shows a galley from Greece’s archaic, pre-Hellenic past complete with sail, ramming prow and steering oars. From its size it is possibly a triacontor that had just a single row of 30 oars, or maybe one of the later derivatives. Like the larger pentecontors these were long-range, versatile ships used for milita

ry and trade purposes. They were ideal vessels for a little light colonizing along the Mediterranean littoral some 2,500 years ago.

Detail of the Dame of Elche. (Image by Manuel Parada López de Corselas, Libres de la Historia del Arte, Wikimedia Commons.)

Detail of the Dame of Elche. (Image by Manuel Parada López de Corselas, Libres de la Historia del Arte, Wikimedia Commons.)

The dominant feature of the note design is the Dame of Elche. This is the name given to a carved limestone bust discovered by chance on a private estate two kilometers south of Elche in 1897. Today the Dame is regarded as one of the masterpieces of Western sculpture. But, also today, she provokes as many questions as when first found. Much of what is written about her is little more than speculation.

There is general but not unanimous agreement that she dates from the 4th century B.C. with her artistic style suggesting a strong Greek influence. She sports a complex headdress with its large coils on either side of the face. It has been likened to an elaborate mantilla. A somewhat simpler headdress is known from another carved bust of a similar 400 B.C. age taken from a Phoenician archaeological site in Alicante.

Some researchers consider the bust to be part of a seated statue. An aperture at the back may have contained a funerary urn. Coming out of left field, the Encyclopedia of Religion links the Dame with Tanit, goddess of Carthage, who was not a nice deity.

Face of the extremely rare, issued Spanish 100 pesetas, P-90, sold by Spink in April 2103 for $11,383. The Dame of Elche provides the vignette at left. Note the Thomas De La Rue imprint. (Image courtesy Spink.)

Face of the extremely rare, issued Spanish 100 pesetas, P-90, sold by Spink in April 2103 for $11,383. The Dame of Elche provides the vignette at left. Note the Thomas De La Rue imprint. (Image courtesy Spink.)

Such inconclusive answers to the sculpture’s riddles led American art historian John F. Moffitt to propose in 1995 that the Dame is an elaborate forgery. He went so far as to identify the forger. But the Spaniards are having none of this. They are aided in their argument by the bust having been originally colored. Traces of pigment that remain today are consistent with those known to have been used c. 400 BC.

The Standard Catalog of World Paper Money: General Issues declares P-90 to have been “Not issued.” Their illustrated note shows an all-zero serial number. They give the value as $6,000 in UNC.

However, that illustrated in the Spink catalog carried serial number 6853549, although the description acknowledged, “this note very rarely seen with serial numbers.” It came graded EF and on the day realized $11,383 including commission.

And, by the way, when it comes to selling items for fancy prices, within weeks of the discovery of the Dame’s sculpture, it was purchased by a French collector for 4000 francs. He shipped her to France for display in the Louvre.

In 1940-41 Spain’s Franco government put the hard word on France’s Vichy government for the Dame’s return. She arrived back on June 27, 1941, just three years after she appeared on her 100 pesetas. Today she resides in Museo Arqueológico Nacional in Madrid, although the residents of Elche would like her to come back home.

With a history like that The Dame of Elche provides a most appropriate vignette for a stunning Spanish note.

 

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