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May 27, 2011

Historical Echoes: When Are Artists Like Central Bankers?

New York Fed Research Library

Answer: When they create money. A number of “trompe l’oeil” (literally, “fool-the-eye”) painters at the turn of the last century included money among the everyday objects they painted so realistically. Although most of these artists depicted the money alongside other objects, William Michael Harnett (1848-92) sometimes painted just the money and was arrested for counterfeiting in 1886. New York law officers seized a painting entitled “Five Dollar Bill” from where it hung in a saloon and demanded that Harnett hand over other “counterfeit” paintings. After viewing the painting, the judge advised that “the development and exercise of a talent so capable of mischief should not be encouraged.” Harnett never painted money again.

Other money painters are John Habele (1856-1933), Otis Kaye (1885-1974), Victor Dubreuil (1880-1910), John F. Peto (1854-1907) and, more recently, Andy Warhol (1928-87).

For a look at some of this art, see William Harnett and Trompe L’Oeil at the National Gallery of Art’s website and an article about the 2009 sale of Warhol’s “200 One Dollar Bills.”

The views expressed in this post are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York or the Federal Reserve System. Any errors or omissions are the responsibility of the author(s).

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