Photographer: Amy Lombard for Bloomberg Businessweek

The Oscars of Paper Currency

Yes, there’s an award for best bank note. No, the U.S. never wins.

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.

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Photographer: Amy Lombard for Bloomberg Businessweek

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.”

Switzerland 50 Swiss franc.
Photographer: Amy Lombard for Bloomberg Businessweek

50 Swiss franc 
Those whimsical Swiss are embarking on a series featuring “the many facets of Switzerland.” Faces are out; objects, places, and characteristics are in. This one depicts wind.

Australia 5 dollar.
Photographer: Amy Lombard for Bloomberg Businessweek

5 dollar 
Australia’s new note displays a novel top-to-bottom window feature, which is as much about anticounterfeiting as aesthetics. Rounding it out, the Queen of England shares top billing with the eastern spinebill and examples of the “prickly Moses” wattle, a type of tree.

England 5 pound.
Photographer: Amy Lombard for Bloomberg Businessweek

5 pound 
The Bank of England’s first polymer note entered ­circulation in September. Bank Governor Mark Carney took one to a food market to dip in a vat of curry, demonstrating it was waterproof. The food-related stunt proved inauspicious when the bank acknowledged the bills were made with trace amounts of animal fat. A petition to ban the component received more than 52,000 signatures within 24 hours.

New Zealand 50 dollar.
Photographer: Amy Lombard for Bloomberg Businessweek

New Zealand 
50 dollar 
The Kiwis’ NZ$5 note was the “clear winner” in 2015, the IBNS said, with a map inset in a “gorgeous polymer window” and a “color-changing yellow-eyed penguin.” The NZ$50, part of the same family, features Sir Āpirana Ngata, a prominent Maori politician.

Scotland 5 pound.
Photographer: Amy Lombard for Bloomberg Businessweek

5 pound 
Scotland mints bills that are accepted widely across the U.K. After a series of polls and focus groups, the country chose the theme “the fabric of nature” for its new £5 and £10 notes. The fiver features the writer Nan Shepherd (1893-1981), best-known for her book The Living Mountain.

Georgia 50 lari
Photographer: Amy Lombard for Bloomberg Businessweek

50 lari 
On the front is Queen Tamar, who ruled the country from 1184 to 1213, a period known as the “Georgian Golden Age.” The note has a holographic stripe and a magenta-to-green security thread.

Maldives 1,000 rufiyaa.
Photographer: Amy Lombard for Bloomberg Businessweek

1,000 rufiyaa 
Its theme is “the beauty in our surrounding.” The primary side depicts a whale shark, with an underprint that gives shading to its skin; on the obverse is a green turtle.