Art collector Boonchai Bencharongkul has invested a second fortune in chronicling the history of Thai banknotes
BUSINESS TYCOON Boonchai Bencharongkul, the country’s foremost arts patron, has a stack of money he wants to share with everyone.
But don’t rush off to his Museum of Contemporary Art with a wheelbarrow to collect your portion. What Boonchai has to offer are photo reproductions of all of Thailand and Siam’s paper currency, contained in a two-volume history.
A reference book and a fascinating history, “Thanabat Ror Kao” covers all the banknotes issued during the 70-year reign of His Majesty the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej, both commemorative and for general use.
Because, apart from his vast collection of paintings and sculptures by Thai artists, he’s amassed an enviable array of banknotes, dating all the way back to the first paper money used in Siam.
Known as mai, it was issued in 1853, during the reign of King Mongkut (Rama IV).
“I’ve accumulated samples from every series and every type of paper money since it first came into use 164 years ago, and I think my collection is the best of its kind,” says Boonchai, the founder and former owner of Dtac who now runs network provider Benchachinda.
The first fruits of 30 years of hunting and collecting take the form of “Thanabat Ror Kao: 70 Pee Tai Rom Phra Baramee”, actually Volume II in a projected two-volume set of hardcover books, with the text in Thai. It focuses on banknotes issued during the reign of His Majesty the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej.
The first volume, due out next year, will trace the histories of the different currency series from 1853 to the time of King Rama VIII. Volume II has come out first as a tribute to the late monarch.
Its title translates as “Banknotes in the Reign of King Rama IX: Under the Royal Graciousness for 70 Years” and it extends from 1948 to the commemorative set issued just last month.
The book describes the features unique to each series and type, and even examines the characteristics of each finance minister’s and Bank of Thailand governor’s signatures on the notes.
“I wanted it to be a complete reference for collectors,” Boonchai said at last Wednesday’s launch at his museum. “When I started collecting 30 years ago I had to gather this information myself from different sources, and it took a lot of time and patience.”
He pointed out how elements appearing in the designs illustrate the country’s history and evolving politics, social attitudes and culture.
“From Series 1, issued in 1902 during the reign of King Rama V, to the current Series 16, half of them appeared under King Bhumibol, emphasising the remarkable length of his reign. And the face values remained relatively stable during that whole period, reflecting the country’s stability. So it shows how lucky we were to be born during his reign.”
Three decades ago Boonchai acquired two Bt20 Series 3 banknotes. The first, introduced in 1934 when Rama VII was on the throne, bears his portrait. That was the first time a monarch’s portrait had served as a banknote’s main element. The second, though from the same series, carries a portrait of Rama VIII.
Boonchai purchased them in the antiques market that used to crowd against Wat Mahatat adjacent to Sanam Luang.
“When I saw these two notes displayed side by side, their design elements immediately reminded me of the old days – the beloved kings’ portraits, the riverside community scene depicted on the front, Wat Phra Samut Chedi on the reverse.
Boonchai Bencharongkul shows the first two banknotes he acquired some 30 years ago.
“I was also astonished that both notes shared the same elements, apart from portraits of different kings. That inspired me to study the history of Thai paper money and try to collect all the different kinds.”
Soon he was bidding for rare examples at auction. The most he ever paid was Bt3 million, for a Bt1,000 Series 1 banknote.
Series 1 had printing only on one side and they’re thus known as “Uniface Banknotes”. There were seven denominations – Bt1, Bt5, Bt10, Bt20, Bt50, Bt100 and Bt1,000 – and they vary greatly in appearance. The English firm Thomas De La Rue & Co did the printing.
The Bowring Treaty that King Mongkut was obliged to sign with Britain opened an era of free trade. Bullet coins – pot duang – were the common currency of the day, but as foreign merchants poured in, not enough could be produced to meet demand. Each coin was made by hand and counterfeits became widespread.
That’s why King Rama IV introduced paper money in 1853 – the mai printed on white paper with designs in black ink on both sides. To help guard against forgeries, the note was stamped with a red chakra, emblem of the Chakri Dynasty, and a red Siamese crown signifying King Rama IV.
There were three types of mai originally – low value, medium value and high value – but the spending public still preferred their pot duang.
Boonchai also owns another kind a “low-value” paper money called att kradat, which was issued in Rama V’s time, again because coinage was insufficient to meet demand.
He also has samples of bat thanakarn (banknotes) issued by Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corp (in 1889), Chartered Bank of India Australia and China (1898), and Banque de L’Indo-Chine (1899) to help customers clear their debts.
Series 9 banknotes were the first released in the reign of King Bhumibol, in 1948.
Series 9 – the first released in the reign of the late King Bhumibol – was quite similar to Series 4 from the time of his elder brother, King Rama VIII, though of course the portrait was changed. Issued in 1948, it carried six denominations – 50 satang, Bt1, Bt5, Bt10, Bt20 and Bt100.
“Thailand’s banknotes were traditionally printed overseas, particularly by Thomas De La Rue in England,” Boonchai said. “The 11th series from 1969 was the first printed locally – by the Bank of Thailand’s Note Printing Works – with guidance in the design and engraving from foreign experts.
Series 11 banknotes issued in 1969 were the first printed domestically. The Bank of Thailand took over the task formerly done overseas.
“In 1975 the Bt500 note made its first appearance, and Thais were in charge of the whole production process. Sanit Ditthapan, a National Artist, was invited to introduce Thai decorative motifs, like the theppanom, singha, naga, garuda, pracham yam and krajang.”
Boonchai’s books include all of the commemorative banknotes produced as well. The first was a Bt60 note marking King Bhumibol’s fifth-cycle birthday in 1987. A Bt70 note, with an unusual vertical design, came out last year to celebrate his 70th anniversary on the throne.
This commemorative Bt60 banknote was issued in 1987 to celebrate King Bhumibol’s fifth-cycle birthday.
Just last month there was a final homage in the form of a commemorative set bearing an image of him wearing the Chakri grown on the front and his portraits at different ages on the reverse.
“The most valued commemoratives are the Bt500,000 banknotes issued in 2000 in a limited edition of just 999 to celebrate Their Majesties’ 50th wedding anniversary,” Boonchai said. “They were distributed for Bt1 million each, though, because half the proceeds were earmarked for royal initiatives.”
A limited edition of 999 Bt500,000 banknotes was issued in 2000 to commemorate the 50th wedding anniversary of Their Majesties King Bhumibol and Queen Sirikit.
Boonchai plans to establish a second museum to house his banknote collection. For now, he’s arranging for the public to pay it “virtual visits” via www.MoCABangkok.com and www.ThaiBanknotes.com.
A CHOICE OF EDITIONS
There are two editions of “Thanabat Ror Kao: 70 Pee Tai Rom Phra Baramee” with different covers. The first, a limited edition of 99, is elaborately packaged along with two authentic Series 9 Bt1 banknotes. The price is Bt4,990 at the Museum of Contemporary Art on Vibhavadi-Rangsit Road, next to the Benchachinda Building.
The second edition of 5,000 copies, has a cover price of Bt1,200, but copies can be had for Bt999 if you place an order at any branch of Thanachart Bank by November 30.
Learn more at (02) 016 5555, extension 2003-4.