30th anniversary of the litas. Creation of the first litas banknotes

This year marks thirty years since the litas began to circulate again in Lithuania after a more than 50-year break. This happened on 25 June 1993. We had the litas for a significant part of our history until the introduction of the euro in Lithuania in 2015. During this period, Lithuania changed and modernised, and the litas became an important symbol of the change of independent Lithuania. In this series of articles dedicated to the 30th anniversary of the litas, we will discuss the most important stages of the development of the litas, its issuance, and remember the most important elements of the design of litas banknotes and coins. Today — about the design of the litas. 

As we said in the last article of this cycle, the idea of reintroducing the litas arose when Lithuania was a Soviet republic and its economy was fully integrated into the economy of the Soviet Union. The debate was long and intense. And not only because of what monetary system should be in force in Lithuania but also about what the new money should look like. 

More serious discussions on the denomination, appearance, technical characteristics, and other relevant issues of national monetary development started only in the second half of 1989. The Law on the Fundamentals of the Economic Independence of the Lithuanian SSR legally legitimised the possibility of introducing the country’s own money and setting up working groups to develop the concepts of the reform of the money and banking system, and the need to discuss the particular specification of money and their appearance.

The Lithuanian Artists’ Union and the Institute of History played an important role in the initial development of the national money. On 1 September 1989, the first discussions between bankers, painters, and historians on the development of national money projects began in the Graphics section of the Artists’ Union and in the nearby Institute of History. The discussions were still very general, but it was already being discussed who and what should be depicted on the Lithuanian banknotes.

On 11 September 1989, a meeting of historians, artists, and economic and financial experts and scientists took place at the Institute of History. An emotional discussion on the future design guidelines for litas banknotes began. Soon, plans to create litas banknotes were presented to a wider circle of artists. Although at first there were many who wished to participate in the creation of litas sketches, there were only five or six enthusiasts left when the time came for specific works. However, the artists realised that making money was not as simple as it may have first appeared. After all, no Lithuanian artist had had the opportunity to participate in the design or production of Russian roubles at the time. In the Soviet Union it was a very secret area, almost like a military secret. No wonder. In Lithuania, which lost its independence in 1940, the creation of money was taboo. They were produced somewhere in Russia, behind nine or even more KGB locks. At that time, Professor Juozas Galkus described the understanding of our artists about the preparation of money projects as follows: “They imagined the creation of money in a very simplistic way: you painted a portrait, you wrote ‘5 litas, Bank of Lithuania’ and that was it.” The work was also complicated by the fact that even its initiators could not advise anyone. 

As a result, there was an active debate on the structure of banknote denominations and what should be depicted on the money. A wide range of options was offered. In this way, without any formalities, a group of persevering artists gathered: Justas Tolvaišis, Rimantas Bartkus, Giedrius Jonaitis, Rytis Valantinas. Graphic artist Raimondas Miknevičius became the unofficial leader of this team. Informal consultants — the already experienced artists J. Galkus, Alfonsas Žvilius, Vytautas Valius, Arvydas Každailis. It was a tedious job. As in the interwar period, this time the money also had to be made from scratch. 

The work of artists was unexpectedly facilitated by Kęstutis Lynikas, who came from Australia to visit relatives in Lithuania and had many years of experience in money production, which he gained while working at the Central Bank of Australia. In one television show that Lynikas participated in, a wide circle of people learned about his professional experience, including those who were invested in the creation of the litas. This is how he became part of the group creating the litas.
Two rounds of the money project preparation contest were announced. The winner of the first place was to receive 900, the second — 700, and the third — 600 roubles. Only the nominated artists were allowed to participate in the next round. The recommendations show that both denominations of banknotes and coins, as well as in terms of the size and other parameters, attempted to focus on the common and familiar features of roubles and kopecks. 

Already on 12 February 1990 the meeting of the committee for the preparation of future litas banknote drafts took place under the chairmanship of Kazimira Danutė Prunskiene. It turned out that not many drawings had been sent. Only 14 artists participated, although even the Artists’ Union had as many as 219 members at the time. After opening the envelopes with the submitted works, it became clear that not all the projects met the conditions set out in the contest, and on one side the banknotes depicted not portraits of historical personalities, but architectural motifs. The Commission decided not to award a first prize. The second prizes for banknote projects were won by the artists Alvydas Mandeika and Liudvikas Pocius, while for the coins — Petras Henrikas Garška. The third place prizes for banknote projects were awarded to the brothers Aistis and Naglis Baltušnikas, and for coin projects — Jolanta Balkevičienė and Antanas Žukauskas. 

The jury of the contest obliged “the Institute of History of the Academy of Sciences of the LSSR to draw up recommendations in the near future on the commemoration of the most famous Lithuanian individuals and history and architectural monuments in paper money, acknowledged the need to confirm the uniform nominal system of litas and cents — 1, 2, 5, 10, 20 (50, 100, 200, 500), as well as to adjust the litas format in the direction of a larger size.” This proposal was adopted taking into account the experience of other countries; therefore, the denominations of 3 and 15 centas and 3 litas were waived, and it was foreseen that the highest denomination would be 500 litas rather than the “hundred” denomination. The main task was to create a banknote that would not be like the Soviet rouble in any way. The requirement that all money should have a general style was approved, although they were supposed to be clearly distinct from each other and visible in the dark or to the visually impaired. Miknevičius, a member of the Artists’ Association, was authorised to form a creative group of sponsored authors and other artists to prepare the final money projects. This was a clear breach of the terms of the contest, in that they provided that only the nominated authors could participate in the second round. However, with so few participants, it was necessary to save the situation somehow and create a group of artists willing and able to work. The artists Justas Tolvaišis, Rimvydas Bartkus, Giedrius Jonaitis, and Rytis Valantinas were invited to participate in the paper money design group set up by Miknevičius to prepare the final projects, in addition to the previously awarded authors — A. Mandeika and L. Pocius. Edmundas Rimša became a history consultant. The Baltušnikas brothers refused to continue their work and participate in the later stages of the contest.

According to historian E. Rimša, who then actively participated in the conception of the future banknotes, it was decided to not portray the Grand Dukes, because there are no surviving historical portraits of them, and they would have had to be created. Most modern states had long abandoned such practices. It was decided to depict on the money people from the first Rebirth, those who sought to liberate Lithuania from the bonds of Tsarist Russia and led it to independence in the interwar period. 

On 18 July 1990, the final decision was made on the portraits, images, and dominant colours of the banknotes of various denominations: the 100 litas banknote was to portray S. Daukantas and Vilnius University (yellowish green), the 50 litas banknote — J. Basanavičius and Vilnius Cathedral with St. Christopher (greenish grey), 20 litas — Maironis and the War Museum with the Statue of Liberty in Kaunas (pink), 10 litas — Vydūnas and Klaipėda (yellowish brown), 5 litas — S. Darius and S. Girėnas and Lituanica on the background of the outlines of the American, European continents, and the Atlantic Ocean (dark grey), 2 litas — a portrait of a woman and Trakai Castle (green), and 1 litas — a portrait of a man and imagery proposed by the artist (light brown).

After a few months of intensive work, on 31 July 1990, the litas projects were presented to the Presidium of the Supreme Council-Reconstituent Seimas, and on 30 August the commission, which was due to approve the drafts of monetary signs, met for the last meeting of the litas banknote projects and approved the submitted drafts in the minutes signed by all thirteen members of the commission. At the same time, searches, which had begun some time ago, were still going on as to where and how to print the litas. But this is another story for another time.