Last September, the Bank of England released a new £5 polymer banknote featuring a portrait of Winston Churchill. Thanks to the efforts of artist Graham Short and gallery owner Tony Huggins-Haig, four of those notes are worth about £50,000.
Huggins-Haig commissioned Short, a renowned British miniature engraver, to etch a tiny artwork on each of the four banknotes. Short selected Austen as his subject because the timing dovetailed with the 200th anniversary of her death, which is being honored in 2017 on a £2 coin (she also appeared on a £10 banknote in 2013). Each golden portrait, measuring just 5 millimeters, is surrounded by a quotation from one of Austen’s books, and took about two weeks to complete. In December 2016, Short and Huggins-Haig spent the etched notes in four different U.K. locations.
The four £5 notes have been avidly sought by art fans, currency collectors, and those who simply would like to score a valuable rarity. The tiny portraits are easily overlooked; each one appears on the watermark to the right of the gilded miniature of Big Ben, and is visible only when the light strikes it from the correct angle. (A YouTube video suggests that rubbing a finger across the watermark reveals the image, but it’s more a matter of the angle of the light than anything to do with friction.) The notes are easier to identify the notes by their serial numbers, which are as follows, along with their associated Austen quotes:
- AM32 885551—“If I loved you less, I might be able to talk about it more” (from Emma) FOUND
- AM32 885552—“To be fond of dancing was a certain step towards falling in love” (from Pride and Prejudice) FOUND
- AM32 885553—“A large income is the best recipe for happiness I ever heard of” (from Mansfield Park) FOUND
- AM32 885554—“I hope I never ridicule what is wise or good” (from Pride and Prejudice) STILL CIRCULATING
The 70-year-old miniature artist’s methods are extremely demanding. He swims 10,000 meters daily to keep his heart rate slow and steady, and he works only between midnight and 5 a.m., since the tremors from street traffic two blocks away can ruin an engraving. His tiny artworks, which are produced using a microscope and a stethoscope (so he can work between heartbeats), have sold for large sums over the years. How tiny, and how large? Back in 2013, he engraved a Bible passage (the one about a camel fitting through the eye of a needle) onto a fleck of gold, in letters smaller than individual blood cells. The engraving, which took 30 re-starts to get right, sold for£100,000. His £5 Jane Austen notes are valued at about £50,000 each.
The first of these notes (the one with the Mansfield Park quote) was found by an elderly art fan in a cafe in South Wales, near where Short first spent it. She has opted to keep the note as an investment for her granddaughter. The second turned up in a Christmas card given to a student in the Scottish Borders (he plans to keep it). The third was recently found in Charlie’s Bar in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland, by a woman who donated the note to charity.
That leaves one last note, #AM32 885554, still waiting to be found.