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Money burning

Title
[A pair of Trompe-l'Oeil of Assignats].
Author
[Anonymous]
Publication place
[Paris,
Publication date
c.1797].
Price
£4,000
Reference
1884

Description

A pair hand-coloured engravings.

Notes

On 19th February 1796, a huge pile of money was set alight in Paris on Place des Piques (formerly, and subsequently Place Vendôme) to the sound of public rejoicing and cries of 'vive la liberté'.

The victim of this iconoclastic flourish was the assignat. Assignats were paper money issued by the National Assembly in France from 1789 to 1796, during the French Revolution. The assignats were issued after the confiscation of church properties in 1790 because the government was bankrupt. The government thought that the financial problems could be solved by printing certificates representing the value of church properties. These church lands became known as biens nationaux ("national goods"). Assignats were used to successfully retire a significant portion of the national debt as they were accepted as legitimate payment by domestic and international creditors. Certain precautions not taken concerning their excessive reissue and commingling with general currency in circulation caused hyperinflation.

Originally meant as bonds, they evolved into a currency used as legal tender. As there was no control over the amount to be printed, the value of the assignats exceeded that of the confiscated properties. This caused massive hyperinflation. In the beginning of 1792, they had lost most of their nominal value. In 1796, the Directoire issued Mandats, a currency in the form of land warrants to replace the assignats, although these too quickly failed.

This hyperinflation was stirred up by repeated food shortages. Instead of solving the financial problems, the assignats became a catalyst for (food) riots. Instability continued after the abolition of the monarchy, exacerbated by the wars France faced. This situation impeded the implementation of good financial policies that would reduce debts. Bills such as the Maximum Price Act of 1793 aimed to regulate inflation.

When the Directoire came into power in 1795 the Maximum Price Act was lifted. Hyperinflation re-emerged and in the next four years Paris was the stage of yet more riots.

The inflation was finally solved by Napoleon in 1803 by introducing the franc as the new currency. By this time, the assignats were basically worthless. The use of the Trompe'l-Oeil was, therefore, an obvious and popular play on the devalued paper.