Deborah Yaffe


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.

By Deborah Yaffe, Jun 14 2018 01:00PM

In the annals of news-that-isn’t-exactly-new, the year 1975 holds a special place.

That fall, the Spanish dictator Francisco Franco lapsed into a coma. For nearly three weeks, the evening newscasts featured stories about Franco’s lingering, along the lines of “Francisco Franco is still clinging to life,” before he finally died on November 20 at the age of eighty-two.

Then Saturday Night Live got into the act: For weeks afterwards -- months? Years? -- its parody newscast would often include an anchor reporting, “In other news, Francisco Franco is still dead.”

In that spirit, I note that earlier this month, a newspaper in Leicestershire, England, helpfully pointed out that the last Jane Austen Golden Fiver has still not been found.

You remember the Golden Fivers. Back in December 2016, a famous micro-engraver named Graham Short decorated four UK £5 notes with a teeny-tiny portrait of Jane Austen encircled by a teeny-tiny quote from one of her novels. Then he secretly spent the notes in England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland and waited for them to turn up in the pockets of unsuspecting consumers.

Newspapers breathlessly reported that, based on pricing of other works by Short, who is known for mind-blowing feats like engraving the Lord’s Prayer on the head of a pin, each fiver could be worth as much as £50,000 (about $67,000).

In the following year, these things happened: People found the Scottish, Welsh, and Northern Irish notes. Two of the finders decided to keep their notes as souvenirs, but the third returned hers to the art gallery that had planned this Charlie and the Chocolate Factory-type stunt, asking that it be sold and the proceeds used to help children. When the note was auctioned to benefit BBC Children in Need, the charitable arm of the venerable broadcaster, it fetched £5,000 (about $6,700) -- which is either a heck of a lot for a piece of currency with a face value of under $7, or a bitter disappointment, depending on how credulously you swallowed that £50,000 estimate.

But as the Leicester Mercury notes, here’s what didn’t happen: No one found the English note, which Short says he spent at Ye Olde Pork Pie Shoppe in the Leicestershire town of Melton Mowbray. By now, the last Golden Fiver could be anywhere, from Melton Mowbray to Edinburgh, from the piggy bank of a child in Cornwall to the saved-for-my-next-UK-trip stash of a tourist in Hong Kong. It could turn up tomorrow! Next Christmas! Or never!

And Francisco Franco is still dead.

By Deborah Yaffe, Dec 7 2017 02:00PM

How time flies.

It’s been exactly a year since a Scottish art gallery announced that Graham Short, an artist known for his teeny-tiny masterworks, had engraved miniature portraits of Jane Austen on four Winston Churchill £5 notes.

As blog readers will recall, in a deliberate echo of the Golden Ticket sweepstakes in Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Short spent the notes in cafés throughout Britain and challenged the spending public to find these needles in the currency haystack. Breathless press reports speculated that, based on the prices Short’s earlier work had commanded, the embellished fivers could be worth as much as £50,000 ($67,000).

Given the amount of currency out there, I was skeptical early on that these four prized portraits – Jane Austen in her familiar cap, encircled by a quote from one of her novels – would ever turn up. Then, in relatively short order, three did. Two of the lucky winners decided to keep the notes as souvenirs; the remarkably generous third winner donated her fiver back to the gallery, with a request that it be used “to help young people.”

Tomorrow, that wish will come true, when the fiver – this one bears the Pride and Prejudice quote "To be fond of dancing was a certain step towards falling in love" -- is auctioned off. The auction will benefit BBC Children in Need, a charitable arm of the venerable broadcaster, which makes grants to projects aimed at helping disadvantaged children and youths. Just incidentally, the auction will also provide the first gauge of the Austen fivers’ actual market value, as opposed to their entirely speculative, reporter-determined value.

In July, to commemorate the bicentenary of Austen’s death, Short donated a fifth embellished fiver for display at the Jane Austen Centre in Bath. Meanwhile, one last note remains undiscovered somewhere. Check your piggy banks, Brits: you could have a surprise holiday gift in there.

By Deborah Yaffe, Apr 20 2017 01:00PM

The Roald Dahl-flavored tale of the four specially engraved, possibly valuable Jane Austen £5 notes continues to be The Story That Will Not Die (aka The Gift That Keeps On Giving, at least for journalists -- and bloggers -- casting about for material).

Since late last year, when artist Graham Short embellished four Winston Churchill fivers with Our Jane, portrayed in one of his trademark teeny-tiny engravings, and then released the specially decorated notes into the British money supply, we’ve had exciting discoveries, selfless donations, copycat engravers, and a false report of a fifth Golden Ticket on the loose.

But wait! Not entirely false, it turns out. Last month, Short revealed that he had recently visited the Jane Austen Centre in Bath, England. A flurry of speculation ensued. Had he paid for his tea and tour with a previously unknown Austen Fiver? Were there not one but two genuine Short Austens still out there to be discovered and cashed in?

Well, it turns out that there is a fifth Austen micro-engraving, but in keeping with the unaccountably charitable bent of everyone associated with this story, Short is donating it to the Jane Austen Centre, where it will be displayed after the formal presentation on July 18, the bicentenary of Austen’s death.

Somehow, it seems appropriate that this completely artificial Austen artifact, created with one eye (at least) firmly fixed on the publicity it could generate, should end up on display at the Bath Jane Austen Centre, Ground Zero for commercially motivated Austenmania.*

* Not that there’s anything wrong with that! I’m all in favor of clever artificial Austen artifacts. Like, for instance, the set of Jane Austen Top Trumps that I recently acquired from the Bath Centre. . .

By Deborah Yaffe, Mar 30 2017 01:00PM

Just when you thought everyone had forgotten about the final Jane Austen Mystery Fiver – the still-missing British £5 note engraved with a tiny portrait of Our Jane – comes word that a copycat engraver may be out there muddying the waters.

You will recall that, late last year, Graham Short, an artist specializing in tiny engravings, embellished four £5 notes with Austen portraits and quotes and then secretly released the notes into the vast sea of British currency. By now, three of the four have been found, but one is still out there somewhere. The press speculates, based on the prices of Short’s past work, that the Austen notes in this Regency Roald Dahl story could be worth as much as £50,000.

Given the hysterical excitement that greeted this stunt, perhaps it was inevitable that a prankster would decide to mess with our collective heads. And so it was that last week, a businesswoman in the Leicestershire town where the missing fiver was originally spent happened across what she thought was the elusive quarry.

Winston Churchill £5 note? Check. Tiny portrait of Austen right there next to Big Ben? Check. Quote from Pride and Prejudice? Um – nope. Instead of Elizabeth Bennet’s immortal words “I hope I never ridicule what is wise or good,” a rather more prosaic sentiment encircled Tiny Jane: “Look for serial number AL22171910.”

What this means is anyone’s guess. Is this the serial number of a different bill destined to play a role in some new literary scavenger hunt? Is it a strangely opaque advertising ploy? Is it even a real serial number? It’s all starting to look less like a novel by Jane Austen and more like one by Agatha Christie.

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