"Thirty-eight hundred in the room. Four thousand on the net, 5,000, 6,000! Bid, bid, bid!" the auctioneer calls out. His voice carries that sing-song quality that all auctioneers seem to have been trained to possess but it's one in the afternoon, four hours into a rare banknotes auction and it's starting to show a slight bit of strain.
The auction, held on January 26, drew around 40 buyers in the room and another 40 or so bidding over the internet for a slice of the Allen Berk collection of banknotes, coins, and certificates. Brought to Hong Kong by Robert Schwartz of Archives International Auctions with local auction house Dynasty, it is the result of over 40 years of collecting and features more than 1,000 items.
Berk, 83, an American, started working in the 1960s on international cruise lines and used the opportunity to collect foreign notes.
A 1941 issue from the Mercantile Bank of India in Hong Kong fetched one of the top prices of the day at HK$88,500. Its high price owed to the fact that it was the finest of only two graded by PMG (a paper money grading company) and has a rather interesting history behind it. Schwartz says it was first issued on November 29, 1941 but was an extremely short-lived note. The Japanese completed the invasion of Hong Kong on December 25, 1941 and switched to Japanese occupation currency.
Another war token is a 1945 Hong Kong government emergency issue which sold for HK$25,960. It has several curious features, namely HK$1 is printed over the bill which had a face value of 1,000 yen. The words "Empire of Japan government" have a line through it and "Hong Kong government" is at the bottom. This note was prepared by the British Military Administration to replace the Hong Kong & Shanghai Banking Corporation's "duress notes" that were placed in circulation immediately after the Japanese surrender, Schwartz says. "It was never released for circulation and high grade examples are very rare."
Some buyers are seeking printer's proofs, which are created when banks are designing notes, but which are never put in circulation.
Steve Frumkin is one such buyer. At the auction, he purchased two printer's proofs made by the American Bank Note company in New York. He says at least one was prepared for T.V. Soong, who was minister of finance for the Kuomintang government and the brother-in-law of Chiang Kai-shek.
Frumkin says, "I'm buying for a short-term resale. It's a volatile market but, generally speaking, it's an up market. I imagine I could find a buyer who already owns the currency that was based on this proof's design so it would fit a collection."
Like many other Chinese collectibles markets, forgeries are an issue. According to Schwartz, Chinese currency from 1948-1953 is particularly troublesome. If you're in the market for that time period, he says.
"You can't just have a casual knowledge unless you don't care about your money. The note has to have provenance. It's one issue where you have to be very knowledgeable. It's one of the most difficult in the Chinese series," says Schwartz.
Although most of the collection was focused on Asia, one of the lead pieces of the auction, a 1666-issued Swedish note, worth the value of a 10 daler Sylvermynt coin, is a large-format note with an ornate black border and text, signed by eight people and is one of the four first paper-issued banknotes in the Western world. In a recent auction, a similar item of lesser quality sold for US$30,000. The trophy note was valued at HK$194,000 to HK$388,000 but failed to find a buyer.