On May 20, 1918, immediately after the declaration of the independence of the First Republic of Armenia, one of the primary tasks of the new government became the creation of the national currency and ensuring money turnover in the country. Prior to the declaration of independence, the currency of the Transcaucasian Commissariat called “bon” had been used in Armenia.
From the very beginning, specialists realized that the creation of the national currency won’t be an easy task since it needs investment, as well as time. Over the first months of Armenia’s independence, provisional checks issued by the Yerevan branch of the State bank have been used. These checks have been issued in the printing office of the Ministry of Interior of Armenia in Yerevan.
At the same time, a working group set to design sketches for the future currency was created under the supervision of the government. This group included artists Arshak Fetvadzhyan and Hakob Kojoyan, financier Grigor Jagetyan (to-be minister of finance of Armenia), and engineer Grigor Aghababyan. Fetvadzhyan was in charge of the typography and preparation of the first banknotes. This choice of a person in charge wasn’t accidental as by the time, Fetvadzhyan had already been a quite renowned artist in Armenia. Among his works were the wash drawings of the architectural monuments standing in the medieval city of Ani, as well as numerous portraits and paintings on motifs of Armenia, mythology, and ethnography.
By July 1919, the typography of Armenian banknotes had already been approved. Shortly, the government received a proposal from the representative of the trading house “Mirzoyants” Vahan Mirzoyants regarding cooperation of the banknotes’ issuance in Europe. Mirzoyants’ father Simeon at the time was in Paris.
Let’s now examine an interesting excerpt from the protocol of Armenia’s government’s session held on July 30, 1919.
“We heard out the proposal of the minister of finance [Grigor Jagetyan] to send engineer Grigor Aghabayan and artist Arshak Fetvadzhyan to France in order to issue the Armenian banknotes abroad. We were requested to provide them with 50 francs per day each, as well as take care of their traveling expenses and pay a salary of 3,000 rubles.
We decided: minister of finance is to allocate 10,000 Danish kroner for this purpose. Apart from that, he is to negotiate with the trade house “Mirzoyants” to receive financing of the issuance on the condition that the expenses of “Mirzoyants” will be compensated either with Armenians bons or produce in accordance with the written proposition of Mirzoyants”. (“Written protocols of the government sessions of the Republic of Armenia from 1918 – 1920”, National archive of Armenia, 2014, page 271)
Thereby, to proceed with the issuance of Armenian banknotes in Europe, Fetvadzhyan left for a durable business trip in Europe. Fetvadzhyan couldn’t at the time imagine that due to rapid changes in the geopolitical situation in Armenia in 1920, he wouldn’t be able to return to his homeland. Fetvadzhyan would spend the final 25 years of his life in the city of Medford, Massachusetts, US, dreaming of returning to his motherland.
Nonetheless, Fetvadzhyan successfully completed his mission. By 1920, with great difficulty, the issuance of Armenian banknotes was finally given a start in England in the printing house of the renowned company “Waterlow & Sons Ltd”. Fetvadzhyan also ordered a Paris company “Chassepot” to issue postage stamps based on the design of the banknotes.
The official banknotes of the First Republic of Armenia are dated to 1919. 50-, 100-, and 250-ruble banknotes have been issued. They contained the signatures of the then premier minister of Armenia Aleksandr Khatisyan and minister of finance Grigor Jagetyan.
The inscriptions on the banknotes have been mostly written in Armenian and partly in Russian and French. Scholars argue that the issue of these particular banknotes significantly differed from the banknotes used in the Transcaucasia in 1918 – 1924, the most notable difference being the higher quality of printing of the Armenian banknotes.
The elegance of the Armenian banknotes is remarkable as well. They featured traditional Armenian symbols and images. The most iconic and recognizable image depicts an Armenian woman holding a distaff on the 250-ruble banknote. The 100-ruble banknote featured the image of an eagle knocking out a snake with a sword. The Armenian banknotes also contain the images of Mount Ararat, Ararat Plateau, as well as samples of ornamentation of the Tigran Onetsi Church in Ani.