Original or Copy?


Is our money what we can call an original, or is it too a worthless copy, an empty promise? For me, an original is something new, an inspired creation, in a way, a promise. And that makes a copy a false promise, something that isn’t what it pretends to be. 

In this short video, Jurg Conzett, founder of the MoneyMuseum, talks about the source of money. 





  • The problem

A few years ago someone offered me a beautiful coin from Ancient Greece. If authentic – that is, if it was not a copy – it was worth $50,000. I knew the man needed money and I sensed he would take a low offer if I made one. Ok. Stop action: What would you have done here? Made a take-it-or-leave-it offer for 25,000, hopefully netting a handsome gain, or would you first have the coin checked by an expert and then pay full market value?

I chose the second option. The expert thought the coin was extraordinary. After half an hour he still held it lovingly in his hand. Finally I pressed him for an answer: Should I buy the coin or not? His conclusion was straightforward: He had seen a coin like this only once before, in the British Museum; if it were still lying there, then this coin must be a copy and thus a worthless fake. That was the sole criterion for his judgment. He was satisfied with his answer but it opened up an important issue, I thought.

  • The Question

Is our money what we can call an original, or is it too a worthless copy, an empty promise? For me, an original is something new, an inspired creation, in a way, a promise. And that makes a copy a false promise, something that isn’t what it pretends to be. With collectable coins, the distinction is easy to understand. Is it a real ancient Greek coin or a fake, made to deceive? Even paper bank notes carry individual serial numbers, making them at least specific if not original. Earlier, coins could be recognized by their mint marks. And traditional societies can recognize their symbols of wealth because they are each handmade creations, originals.  But this is also true of our money today. Money is a promise for a future transaction. If I take out a mortgage, money is created and reflects my promise to repay the loan. In this sense our money is an original promise and not a worthless copy.  

The German Literature Archive in Marbach hosted an exhibition recently titled "The Value of the Original". One conclusion the show draws is that Western values are more fixated on originality than we have ever been before. The original marks the beginning of something new. It gives our beliefs legitimacy, assigns values to them and secures our common cultural roots. Or so we think. The original supplies answers to the question, why are things as they are? It helps us come to grips with the world as it is. And this is precisely what money is in danger of losing in the West: We no longer remember that money too is original, a word that comes from the Latin origo, the source.

Some years ago I became interested in Chinese history and I began to collect Chinese coins of the past 2000 years. I was surprised how inexpensive even very old Chinese coins were compared with those of ancient Greece and Rome. Perhaps the most important reason is that Asian culture regards originals differently than the West. The East doesn’t share our rigid concept of the original.

The Chinese consciousness is shaped by an affinity for process and the changes that accompany a process. A creation – unique in time and place – is unthinkable for them. That may explain why Chinese culture has little appreciation for ruins. It doesn’t see identity as based on a one-time event, which in turn explains why it doesn’t recognize the notion of immutable originals. In Chinese thought, creation has no absolute beginning. Rather, it’s a continuous process, without beginning and without end.

In China, artists traditionally learned by copying masters. This was not seen as fakery: Copying a master was a sign of respect for his achievements. And when a counterfeiter borrowed a painting from a collector and returned a copy instead, it was not automatically considered a fraud. “You should own the painting you deserve,” was the verdict if a collector failed to detect the difference. Knowledge, connoisseurship, justifies ownership. If a copy can be regarded as equal to or even better than an original, the copyist’s skills deserve, and are given, respect. Michelangelo was a brilliant copyist. In his way he was the last Chinese-style artist of the Renaissance because, like his peers in China, Michelangelo was known to borrow a work of art he admired and often return a copy he had made to its owner.

This view of the world has important consequences since, globally, the economic center of gravity is moving decidedly towards Asia. And this shift will fundamentally change our understanding of money and property.

Before we present a few conclusions, a quick summary:

 What is originality, and what is it worth? These are important, challenging questions.

The West has come to value only material attainment. Making the original an anchor of social orientation – has ossified the West’s mindset. It’s either the original, the real thing, or it’s a worthless copy.

An Eastern perspective focuses on process, on observing the dynamic flux of relationships. It appreciates virtuosity. An Asian view remembers the pledge, the promise, more.

For money, that means more emphasis in the future will be on the dynamic concept of money-as-a-promise and less on the rigid notion of money as symbol of material achievement. The East lives the promise more and embraces constant change while the West’s model has hardened into the frozen symbolism of wealth as a number.

  •  Conclusions

As a symbol for expressing material wealth, money’s days are numbered. It’s outdated. You can see that in the current flight to tangible assets; noting that central banks offer a near zero level of interest. Investors don’t want money; they want assets. That has implications for fixed income securities such as bonds. And for our pension funds, which for the most part invest in fixed-income securities. They increasingly risk losing their value.

On the positive side, financial markets will change and over time investors will look to secure and increase their wealth through active participation in the economy, that is, through buying shares in enterprising companies that take risks.


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