WASHINGTON — For the average numismatic, today's long-awaited debut of the new $50 bill is likely to come up a bit short.
Same old green. No eye-catching abstract design. Sure, there are watermarks and fine, concentric lines in the engraving to make the new bills harder to counterfeit. But these security features - including a near-invisible thread behind Ulysses S. Grant's collar - hardly constitute a dramatic makeover.
Money scholars and collectors say the US dollar may be king around the world, but it's the aesthetic dirge of the currency world.
"It's ugly," says John Kleeberg, curator of Modern Coin and Currency at the American Numismatic Society in New York. "They keep using a design that is 70 years old." He suggests American currency would be improved if it boasted abstract art similar to Danish or Swedish currency.
But avant-garde money is unlikely ever to make its way into Americans' pocketbooks. The guardians of tradition, those who believe the look of US greenbacks is bound up in the bills' global prestige, are not inclined to push for bold change.
"Public acceptance of and confidence in our coins and currency are critical to the proper functioning of the US economy and world economy," says Rep. Michael Castle (R) of Delaware, who chairs the House subcommittee responsible for overseeing money production.
Doug Mudd of the National Numismatic Collection at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington says anti-counterfeiting efforts drive currency redesigns. But, he adds, "the government is more conservative than the public when it comes to monetary change."
Mary Ellen Withrow, the Treasury official whose signature is on the new $50s, says currency credibility comes first. She'll spend the first new $50 bill today on a ticket to a benefit performance at Radio City Music Hall in New York for visually impaired children - in recognition of the easier-to-read numerals on the new bills.