The Money Changer and His Wife
To the untrained eye, the painting presents a straightforward currency exchange; the Money Changer compares the values of coins using a tiny set of scales, while his wife casts a wearily judicious eye over the transaction – lips pursed to give the impression of keeping her husband honest.
But look closer and you can see Matsys’ true intent. The intricate detail of the composition provides a biting critique of the ineffective relationship between FX providers and financial regulators; a relationship that allows the former to use a bewildering array of tricks to confuse and overcharge their customers.
Matsys cleverly uses perspective to paint from the customer’s point of view. Your eye is drawn towards an ornate glass goblet, some hypnotic glass baubles dangled from a shelf, or a bejewelled kazoo left inexplicably on the table.
Meanwhile the scales – the very mechanism of the currency transaction – are almost invisible, camouflaged against the murkiness of the coins. It’s almost as if the Money Changer doesn’t want you to see what he’s up to.
Perhaps most damning of all, the convex mirror in the foreground displays a warped reflection of the customer, simultaneously demonstrating the Money Changer’s distortion of reality to disguise the hidden charges, as well as the customer’s obliviousness to his own money being misappropriated. He’s paying no attention, apparently reading a magazine.
But if he’d look up, the signs are all around him. Deep in the painting’s background, an earlier customer can be seen through a crack in the doorway, getting a real earful from his wife for having fallen prey to the Money Changer’s chicanery. He’s been gulled and he knows it.
Finally, the expressions. The Money Changer hides beneath hooded eyes, showing no emotion as he remorselessly rips off his client. The wife’s blank-eyed stare barely hides her staggering indifference to the Money Changer’s immoral practices. Why should she care about the little guy if business is good?
It is quite astonishing that Matsys managed to capture so accurately the dynamic that would continue and amplify over the subsequent five hundred years.
Today, there is an astounding lack of regulation of currency exchange services, allowing less scrupulous providers to exploit a huge variety of loopholes and deliberately confusing language in fleecing their customers. Ever been told that you’re getting a 0% fee on currency transactions, only to find that your money has been subjected to a wildly inflated spread margin? That’s why.
There is a desperate need for greater transparency in the currency exchange industry, so that all providers can be judged by the same criteria and customers can more easily compare the services on offer.
For our part, we’re utterly transparent in guaranteeing a fixed 0.2% fee and exchanges at the mid-market rate. No smoke screens, no tricks, no misleading promises.
Hopefully that will one day be true industry-wide.