Exploring the collecting of autographed notes
- Published: Oct 15, 2015, 1 PM
Editor's note: The following is the first of a three-part series on autographed notes that appears in the Nov. 2, 2015, issue of Coin World.
Collecting autographed notes is a solid access point to begin collecting paper money, just as these notes provide a way for an experienced collector to delve deeper in the hobby.
Typically, what comes to mind regarding signed notes are modern U.S. notes with a handwritten autograph, a “courtesy signature,” of the treasurer of the United States or the Treasury Secretary above the plate signature that is printed on every note.
In Colonial times, notes were signed individually. Some of the men who signed Colonial currency also signed the Declaration of Independence and the signed notes are the primary way to collect their signatures today.
Finally, celebrities sign their name on many things, sometimes including money, which makes the signed note fall in both the numismatic and entertainment memorabilia categories.
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‘Courtesy’ signed notes
With the millions upon millions of individual notes produced by the Bureau of Engraving and Printing each year, it’s obvious that the treasurer and Treasury secretary cannot sign every note. Because of this, their signatures are put on the printing plates and so appear uniformly on each note.
At some coin shows and other events, a Treasury official, most often the U.S. treasurer, signs what are known as “courtesy autographs,” where the official personally autographs a note above the facsimile signature. Usually collectors provide $1 and $2 notes for the signing, although higher denominations are seen.
This collecting area took off in the 1950s and 1960s, corresponding with the rise of coin collecting more generally, although earlier examples can be found. All treasurers and secretaries of the Treasury since the 1950s have autographed bills.
Current U.S. Treasurer Rosa “Rosie” Rios has been especially active in visiting with collectors and signing notes, typically with a limit of two items per person. At the 2014 American Numismatic Association National Money Show in Atlanta, Rios signed uncut sheets of the much-delayed Series 2009A $100 Federal Reserve notes to the delight of collectors, including John and Nancy Wilson who had a sheet of four notes signed.
Nancy recalled: “I handed her the sheet of notes for her to sign. She was very nice and signed all four notes on the sheet and placed a #1 designation on the top note plus the date 2/27/14. She was happy to do that for me.”
For many, the greatest value of these notes is as a souvenir, reminding someone of a coin show attended and an encounter with the treasurer.
In terms of market value, standard tenets of supply and demand apply, based on the individual’s length in office and his or her outreach in attending coin shows and events where he or she could sign notes. Generally, autographs from Treasury officials who are dead are more valuable than those who are alive, because a living signer could sign notes for years, expanding the supply.
The signature of Rios, who is in the sixth year of her term and has been active, will likely always be relatively common, as will the signature of Mary Ellen Withrow, who served as treasurer for nearly seven years, between 1994 and 2001, and also actively attended coin shows.
For a common $1 Federal Reserve note, a signature of a recently serving treasurer generally adds $10 to $20 to the value of the note. Withrow notes certainly are in no shortage, since during her term she became a Guinness Book of Records’ record holder as the person whose facsimile signature has appeared most often on U.S. paper currency.
Earlier low-denomination notes with added courtesy signatures of treasurers active in the 1960s through 1980s often sell at the $20 to $50 level, although bargains can be acquired. For example, a Series 1974 $1 Federal Reserve Note signed by Francine Irving Neff, who was treasurer between 1974 and 1977 under Presidents Nixon and Reagan, sold for just $10 in a recent online auction.
Another popular collecting area is with dual signed notes, where the treasurer and Treasury secretary have both signed the note. Examples of these can sell at the $40 to $75 level, generally, as the secretary of the Treasury is usually less active than the treasurer in providing autograph opportunities. In an online auction this past summer a Series 1963 $1 Federal Reserve note courtesy signed by both Secretary of the Treasury Douglas Dillon and Treasurer Kathryn O’Hay Granahan sold for $58.
Check back later for more from Coin World's feature on autographed notes.
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