The International Bank Note Society was founded in 1961 by a group of people who collected, traded, sold, and admired rare paper currency. It wasn’t a large community. For decades, the IBNS’s activities extended more or less to a trade journal, a membership directory, an annual mail-bid auction, and networking events. Meanwhile, the rare-coin trade was big and getting bigger, growing into what the Professional Numismatists Guild estimates to be a $5 billion business, Bloomberg reports.

 

Then, in 2005, the IBNS made an announcement: Its members had chosen the first annual “Bank Note of the Year.” All bills introduced into general circulation the preceding year had been eligible; voters were instructed to choose the one with the best combination of artistry and security. The IBNS may have been tiny, but it knew how to stoke rivalry among the world’s mints. The news release crowning the winner, a Canadian $20 bill with a sublime portrait of Queen Elizabeth II, said it had “only just beat the new Faeroese 200-krone bank note,” which featured “a Ghost Moth printed in intaglio amongst blades of grass.” An obscure global tournament was born.

 

The Faeroe Islands avenged the loss the next year, and subsequent winners have included Bermuda, for a $2 bill with anticounterfeit features that belie its low face value, and the Comoros, for a 1,000-franc note bearing poetry. (“From our feelings, what you expect I understood / For it is a love that is so absolutely exclusive / That, not to lose you, I hereby consent.”) Kazakhstan reeled off a three-peat from 2011 to 2013. The U.S.’s staid greenbacks have never won. As the competition has gained more attention, IBNS President Dennis Lutz says proud governments have begun to get in touch, trying to handicap the chances of their new Maldivian rufiyaa and Macanese pataca.

 

IBNS members are about to vote for the best bill of 2016. Among the nominees—see the following—are entries from England, Switzerland, and Georgia, whose 50-lari note is full of medieval iconography. Lutz won’t tip his hand, but he says patterns do emerge among admirers of paper (and, now, polymer-based) currency. “I have to say, right now people are really going for color,” he says. “And they like things like flowers and birds. Not people.”

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