I love paper money, especially the collectible kind, and have
written several books on the subject, including Obsolete Paper Money
Issued by Banks in the United States 1782 to 1866, The Whitman
Encyclopedia of U.S. Paper Money and, with David Sundman,
The 100 Greatest American Currency Notes.
I find that today’s system of assigning numerical grades to paper
money, 1 to 70, may fit in nicely with coin grading, but to me it is
out of sync with reality when it comes to paper currency.
To me, the centering of a note is important. Recently, in looking
through some certified notes, I saw many that were poorly centered,
even cut into the margins, that were certified as 63 to 65. To me the
brightness of the ink, including the Treasury seal on federal notes,
is important. Brightness does not seem to be a factor in an assigned grade.
And, absolutely incredible to me, faded signatures on national
bank notes don’t seem to be noticed.
I believe this statement will not be challenged: A national bank
note graded way down the scale as Very Fine 35, bright and with boldly
inked signatures is far finer to own than one graded Uncirculated 63
with faded Treasury seal and signatures.
When a note is circulated, the accompanying description is apt to
say something like “rust stain on back,” “a few pinholes” and “tiny
In reality, it is such things that define a grade such as Fine 12.
To add a lot of negative words that are normal for a grade only serves
to turn off a lot of buyers and depreciate the value of the notes.
I will pay several thousand dollars for a Fine 12 note of the
Carroll County National Bank of Sandwich, N.H. If you offer me one, I
will expect that it may have a few pinholes and some discoloration. If
I were to have it certified, I would not like it to be in a holder
saying “Fine 12. Light stains, some pinholes, roughness on the left
edge,” or whatever. Simply listing the grade as Fine 12 states the case.
Large copper cents if in worn grades are something less than
perfect. This is normal. If Professional Coin Grading Service and
Numismatic Guaranty Corp. coin graders were to learn from paper money
describers, a cent now described as “1794 S-48 VG-8” might say (if
there were enough room on the holder tag) “1794 S-48 VG-8. Tiny nick
on obverse edge, patch of porosity near 4 of date, small spot and some
discoloration on reverse.” Who would want to buy a coin with a
description like this?
I think commercial graders of paper money should hold a summit
conference, determine if centering, color, brightness and other
aspects are indeed relevant, and agree to limit their flow of negative
words for lower grade notes that normally have some problems.
Q. David Bowers is chairman emeritus of Stack’s Bowers Galleries
and numismatic director of Whitman Publishing LLC. He can be reached
at his private email, firstname.lastname@example.org,
or at Q. David Bowers LLC, Box 1804, Wolfeboro, NH 03894.