Deborah Yaffe

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Still missing

By Deborah Yaffe, Dec 19 2019 02:00PM

Today’s Jane Austen happening is what hasn’t happened yet: Almost exactly three years after an artist engraved tiny portraits of Jane Austen on a set of British £5 notes and then secretly put four of them into circulation, one of the enhanced fivers apparently remains undiscovered.


Back in December of 2016, as blog readers will recall, the neo-Roald-Dahl story of the Austen fivers sent the British press into a frenzy of excitement. Because previous works by artist Graham Short, known for engraving the Lord’s Prayer on the head of a pin, had drawn high prices, the newspapers concluded that each Austen note could be worth £50,000 (about $66,000).


I was initially skeptical that the notes would ever be found – lots of hay, only four needles – but in less than three months, the notes spent in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland turned up. Short donated another to Jane Austen’s House Museum, to commemorate the bicentenary of Austen’s death.


But the final note, which Short spent three years ago at Ye Olde Pork Pie Shoppe in Melton Mowbray, a town in the central English county of Leicestershire, remains out there somewhere. “The serial number of the note is AM32885554, and it carries a quote from Pride and Prejudice: ‘I hope I never ridicule what is wise or good,’ ” a Leicestershire news outlet helpfully reported last year.


That’s one of the few recent mentions of the missing fiver: the feverish media interest seems to have subsided, perhaps because the only note to be sold at auction brought in just £6,000 (about $7,900), a far cry from the earlier estimates.


Meanwhile, Short has moved on. Earlier this year, he created an engraving on the head of a pin and donated it to a save-the-rainforests effort.


But he hasn’t entirely given up on Golden Ticket-style stunts. Last year, during England’s World Cup semi-final run, Short engraved six £5 notes with the face of team star Harry Kane and secretly spent four of them in locations around Britain.


There’s no word yet on whether any of the Kane fivers has been found. So it’s just possible that in a wallet somewhere in the United Kingdom, Jane Austen is sleeping quietly next to a very accomplished soccer player.


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