From the odd to the mundane, the world is full of different currencies and banknotes. The various colors, designs and portraits printed on these 10 unusual notes offer a unique opportunity to delve into the culture and history of each country of origin. Some tell stories about particular times in history, such as economic upheaval, inflation, and the aftermath of war. Others honor fallen heroes. And some are just plain weird. From Albert Einstein to topless shark-riders and Belarusian squirrels, we present 10 of the most bizarre banknotes ever printed.
1. Yen – Hong Kong (Japanese Occupation)
Hong Kong has stuck to the Hong Kong dollar as its official currency since it was introduced in 1935, except for a brief interlude during WWII when the region was occupied by Japan. The Japanese attacked Hong Kong on December 8, 1941 and won complete control by Christmas Day. Hong Kong lived under martial law for the next three years and eight months, until the Japanese surrendered at the end of WWII. Strict Japanese control included outlawing the Hong Kong dollar and replacing it with the Japanese Military Yen. When WWII ended, the Military Yen faded into oblivion and the Hong Kong dollar was reinstated.
2. Five Pounds (George Best Note) – Northern Ireland
This £5 note is a bit odd for two reasons; it features Manchester United and Northern Ireland soccer star George Best, and it was unique to Northern Ireland. Although the countries in the United Kingdom (Northern Ireland, England, Wales and Scotland) all use the same currency, Northern Ireland uses different banknotes. In fact, each bank in Northern Ireland circulates its own distinct versions.
A lot of places in the rest of the UK won’t accept the different bills, although they can be exchanged in banks. Either way, this George Best note isn’t likely to be used for something as innocuous as buying some fish and chips, as only one million were printed. The goal of the note was to celebrate the soccer star and create a unique bit of memorabilia.
3. One Hundred Trillion Dollars – Zimbabwe
In mid-January 2009, Zimbabwe began printing 100 trillion dollar banknotes. According to the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe, this was with the “convenience of the public” in mind. At the time, the country had the highest inflation rate in the world, and the bill pictured above was worth about US$300. In July 2008, the inflation rate reached a stunning 231 million percent – a single loaf of bread cost roughly 300 billion Zimbabwean dollars.
Doctors and nurses went on strike, and many teachers abandoned their jobs, asking to be paid in foreign currency. Foreign tender was finally legalized in late-January 2009, and by April the Zimbabwean dollar was defunct. Currently, the one hundred trillion dollar banknote can be purchased on Amazon for US$1.25.
4. 100 Pfennig (Emergency Money) – Germany
German emergency money, also known as notgeld, first appeared at the beginning of WWI, when a coin shortage and hyperinflation made regular business impossible. To fill the gap, companies and local authorities began printing notgeld. Materials used included ceramic, wood and leather, or even paper sheets delicately illustrated by artists. The images on the notes featured everything from romantic folklore to social satire, leaving behind a cultural record of this period in German history. By 1923, hyperinflation had astronomically devalued the currency, so the German government created a new one called the Rentenmark. The production of notgeld was finally brought to an end.
5. 5,000 Króna – Iceland
This Icelandic 5,000 króna banknote depicts a woman named Ragnheidur Jonsdottir, who wore some pretty interesting headgear from the looks of things. She is most famous for the embroidered altar cloths she made. The eight-pointed stars on the background represent the pattern on the altar cloth she made for Laufas church in northern Iceland.
In 2009, the bill was worth around US$39. Today, Iceland’s economy continues to struggle with inflation. The country has been considering opting for a foreign currency and some are in favor of using the Canadian dollar. Others think the euro is the way to go. If Iceland does make the move, this banknote could have little value except as a collector’s item.
6. 10 Dollars – Cook Islands
This fascinating 10-dollar bill pays tribute to the Polynesian culture of the Cook Islands. The 15 islands, located in the South Pacific, make up a self-governing territory as an associated state of New Zealand. Although the region primarily uses the New Zealand dollar, the Cook Islands still issue their own distinctive currency – including this one-of-a-kind note featuring a topless woman riding a shark. The currency can only be used and exchanged in the Cook Islands, as no other bank in the world will accept it.
7. 50 Kaneek – Belarus
This Belarusian 50 kaneek note featuring a vignette of a cute red squirrel was printed in 1992. Other Belarusian banknotes printed at the time include images of beavers, bears, and wolves. A real zoological selection! The official Belarusian currency is the ruble, and there are 100 kaneeks to a ruble. Inflation in the 1990s soon devalued the notes. In 2000, the government of Belarus created a new ruble valued over the old one at 1,000 to one.
Nowadays, this banknote is nothing more than a novelty item for collectors around the world. Interestingly, the highest banknote denomination in Belarus is currently 200,000 rubles, equivalent to approximately US$24.50.
8. Five Lirot – Israel
In 1952, Israeli prime minister David Ben-Gurion offered Albert Einstein the ceremonial position of president of Israel. Abba Eban, the Israeli ambassador at the time, said that the gesture “embodies the deepest respect which the Jewish people can repose in any of its sons.” In the end, Einstein decided that he could not accept the offer. When Einstein was admitted to hospital on April 17, 1955, he took with him a speech that he was writing for a TV appearance to commemorate Israel’s anniversary. Sadly, he didn’t get a chance to finish or deliver it, as he passed away on April 18.
The lirot, also known as the Israel pound, served as Israel’s currency until 1980, when it was withdrawn in favor of the old Israeli shekel. The shekel, however, lasted a mere five years and was replaced in 1985 by the new shekel. This five-lirot Einstein note was printed in 1968.
9. Dollars – Australia
This snazzy-looking Australian banknote is part of the Reserve Bank of Australia’s initiative to freshen up the currency. However, as of September 2012, it was two years behind schedule. The bill pictured is part of a series that has cost about AUS$9.3 million to develop; the goal was to create something more vibrant and up-to-date. Research conducted by the Australian Reserve Bank found that most locals couldn’t identify the faces on their banknotes. If the new series meant to correct that, though, its success has been dubious. Mary Gilmore, pictured above, was a famous poet and literary icon, but many commented that they had no idea who she was. Others expressed disgust that so much money had been spent re-designing a currency that was perfectly fine to begin with.
10. 20,000 Rupiah – Indonesia
Indonesia’s 20,000 rupiah note features an interesting combination of colors and imagery. Ki Hadjar Dewantara, the ex-Minister of Education and Culture, graces the front of the note, wearing a puzzled-looking expression. Due to inflation, denominations under 100 rupiah are hardly ever used. Apparently, many Indonesian stores round their prices and may give out candy to cover any difference. Anything under 50 rupiah isn’t circulated – even though one rupiah is still considered legal tender. Currently, the largest Indonesian banknote is 100,000 rupiahs, the equivalent of approximately US$10.64.