Zimbabwe's 100-trillion-dollar note is a highly sought-after collector's item.
The 100-trillion-dollar note, circulated for just a few months before the Zimbabwe dollar was officially abandoned as the country's legal currency in 2009, marked the daily limit people were allowed to withdraw from their bank accounts. Prices rose, wreaking havoc.
The runaway inflation forced Zimbabweans to wait in line to buy bread, toothpaste and other essentials. They often carried bigger bags for their money than the few items they could afford with a devalued currency.
Today, all transactions are in foreign currencies, mainly the U.S. dollar and the South African rand. But Zimbabwe's worthless bills are valuable—at least outside the country. That Zimbabwe's currency happened to be denoted in dollars has amplified appeal, say currency dealers and collectors, particularly after the global financial crisis and mounting public debts sparked inflationary fears in the U.S.
Only Zimbabwe's secretive central bank officials know the true figures, but dealers estimate that the regime printed roughly five million to seven million bills in the 100-trillion-dollar denomination. Based on the serial numbers and known supply of bills in the collector's market, they believe only a few million were actually released.
Though serious collectors are only interested in uncirculated currency—for the same reasons that baseball card or action-figure enthusiasts will pay a premium for pieces in mint condition—the less pristine bills are getting a second act in Zimbabwe as souvenirs for foreign visitors.
At a shopping center in Harare popular with tourists, Gamuchirai Kaparadza sells Zimbabwean bills alongside clay pots and soapstone carvings. He says the bills go for between $1 and $10, depending on a customer's bartering skills. "The 100-trillion-dollar note sells like hot cakes," says Mr. Kaparadza. "But it is also hard to get these days because I think more people are realizing they can make some bucks selling it."
A German tourist who failed to get the coveted 100-trillion note was happy to pay $5 for a 100-billion-dollar note instead. "It's still huge," she said.