Auckland coin and banknote collector and dealer Joshua Lee on his special find

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Joshua Lee with the specimen £100 BNZ note he recently purchased which once belonged to one of the country’s first bankers. Photo / Sylvie Whinray

It’s a ‘pretty piece of paper’ that represented a life-changing sum of money when it rolled out of the printers 150 years ago, belonged to one of New Zealand’s first bankers and went later changing hands at auction for nearly $100,000.

When silver dealer Joshua Lee added the £100 BNZ printer’s proof specimen to his collection this year, it was initially with the intention of returning it for profit.

But the 20-year-old, who turned his hobby of collecting coins and banknotes into small business Aventine Numismatics last year, realized he couldn’t quite part with his new addition.

“I found myself reluctant to list it. The reality is that I have to consider one day if I should sell. I’m in business so I can’t keep it all – if I was a millionaire I would still keep it.

“This is my favorite item in my collection so far. It’s irreplaceable, and it’s highly likely that I’ll never see anything like it again.”

Before the Reserve Bank was created in 1934 and started printing its own banknotes, commercial banks created their own, including the third £100 note issued by BNZ between 1873 and 1899.

The banknote was printed in black on a white background, with its denomination on a brown panel in the center, and with two medallions showing scenes including Māori, a smoking volcano, and a kiwi.

The late 19th century specimen £100 BNZ banknote once sold for nearly $100,000.  Photo / Sylvie Whinray
The late 19th century specimen £100 BNZ banknote once sold for nearly $100,000. Photo / Sylvie Whinray

It was the highest denomination issued in New Zealand, Lee said, with a face value equivalent to around $15,000 in 2022, according to the Reserve Bank’s inflation calculator.

At the time of publication, the average salary of a kauri digger was around £2 per week ($312 in 2022), while a jeweler could expect to earn around £3 per week ($469) . A six-bedroom house in Auckland costs £31 to £46 a year to rent ($4,800 to $7,000).

Lee’s specimen note was never in circulation, but among those printed for banks around the world to verify that all £100 BNZ notes presented to them were genuine.

It was previously owned by Falconer Larkworthy, a leading New Zealand economic development figure who helped BNZ compete for gold business after the bank was established in 1861, and later managed BNZ’s London base.

Larkworthy may have acquired the specimen notes during a visit to the bank’s printers, or received them as a souvenir, said Rob Pepping, a New Zealand author and banknote and coin expert.

Banknotes were the preferred currency in the Otago gold fields, where theft was a problem, Pepping said.

“Miners didn’t like sovereigns (coins). They liked banknotes because they could bend them and hide them on their person. ‘era.”

Falconer Larkworthy, pictured in the uniform of the Auckland Rifle Volunteers circa 1861, was once in possession of the specimen note.  Photo / Alexander Turnbull Library MS-1133-0046
Falconer Larkworthy, pictured in the uniform of the Auckland Rifle Volunteers circa 1861, was once in possession of the specimen note. Photo / Alexander Turnbull Library MS-1133-0046

Lee isn’t sure how the banknote specimen left Larkworthy or his descendants’ possession, but his story included a staggering sale of 85,000 Australian dollars ($94,000 New Zealand dollars) by the Rare Coin Company in 2013.

He wouldn’t say how much he paid for the specimen banknote, but if he ever sold it, he didn’t expect to catch a sale price for the 2013 transaction, which came at a time when there was a strong demand for New Zealand collectibles. and Australian coins and banknotes.

There were eight specimen £100 BNZs like Lee’s, while only one previously circulating £100 BNZ note remained in private hands, along with around 50 of the notes held by the Reserve Bank, Pepping said.

Due to the face value of the banknotes, the original owners did not keep them – the only privately owned banknote was found inside a piece of furniture in the 1970s or 1980s.

“It wasn’t something people would put in their Bibles and not use. It was worth so much…it would have bought you a house.”

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In 2022, the specimen currently in Lee’s collection is unlikely to provide him with a home.

But that could be a good chunk of a house deposit – if he can bring himself to click through a listing on an auction website.

“A few people said, ‘you’re only 20, you need the money, sell it’. But I can’t.”

Until he’s ready to sell, Lee enjoys digging into the history of the note – much of which has remained unknown and which he considered the most interesting aspect of his hobby-turned-vocation.

“In a way, it’s about the story. It’s the story behind that pretty piece of paper that intrigues people.”

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