Paper Money

Numbers out of sync with notes

This Series 1902 Keene (N.H.) National Bank, Red Seal $10 national bank note has bright red colors and is boldly signed. The margins are complete, but tight. It is graded PCGS Very Fine 35. To the writer, this is a more desirable note than one graded, say, Uncirculated 60 with faded color and signatures.

Image courtesy of Q. David Bowers.

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 edge repair.”

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,, or at Q. David Bowers LLC, Box 1804, Wolfeboro, NH 03894.

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