Paper Money

BEP disputes some details of NYT report on Tubman note

Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew is seen examining an image of Harriet Tubman in this April 20, 2016, Treasury file photo. In it, Lew and members of the BEP design team are examining a blowup of an image created from a public photograph of Tubman as part of their research.

Image courtesy of Treasury Department.

As soon as you think that nothing more can possibly be said about the Harriet Tubman $20 note, it becomes more controversial than ever. The New York Times set off a media tsunami on June 14 with an article bearing the headline “See a Design of the Harriet Tubman $20 Bill That Mnuchin Delayed.” 

Economic policy reporter Adam Rappeport wrote that work was progressing apace on the new bill when Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin essentially canceled it for as much as a decade. The article went on to show a purported image of the new note marked “For Concept Only,” that has a number of deliberate modifications. It uses a Series 1996 Boston $20 Federal Reserve note as a base but with Z instead of a letter from A to L for the Federal Reserve district. The face plate number was moved to another position. It incongruously has the Rosa Rios and Jacob Lew signatures from the 2013 series. The “20” numerals are from the current series as are the rounded corners. 

The design (which Coin World could not get permission to re-publish), says BEP Lead Public Affairs Specialist Lydia Washington, was produced in response to a request from former Treasury officials for “preliminary concept imagery as part of research regarding their proposed ideas.” 

Ms. Washington added of the Times’ publication of the image, “It was not an official, BEP released image; and in no way provided a viable representation of what the final $20 note design would look like. Designs will go through a number of iterations before a final selection is made. As a matter of fact, an approved starter design or portrait was never provided or selected, and there has never been a production plate made for the new series, including that with any new portraits.”

A photo showing the same image of Tubman as on the concept note is the one Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew is seen examining in an April 20, 2016, Treasury handout file photo. In it, Lew and members of the BEP design team are examining a blowup of an image created from a public photograph of Tubman, as part of their research. 

The Bureau of Engraving and Printing was quick to dispute the Times’ characterization of the photo. Director Leonard R. Olijar said the same day, “The illustration published by the New York Times was a copy of an old Series note with the signatures of former officials, with a different image superimposed on it. It is not a new $20 note, as incorrectly stated by the New York Times, in any way, shape or form. The facsimile contained no security features or offset printing included on currency notes. There is nothing about that illustration that even begins to meet technical requirements for the next family of notes.” 

Olijar also said, “BEP was never going to unveil a note design in 2020. To keep our currency safe and secure, it is unwise to give counterfeiters a look at a potential future note far in advance of a note going into circulation. Additionally, if the concept of a note that was made public by the government were to change during that lengthy amount of time, it would create confusion in the global marketplace, further aiding counterfeiters.”

The uproar over what a future bill may look like called attention away from the other equally important part of the story — that when Mnuchin put the note’s development on hold, work was well along on the new design. 

The Times said, “A current employee of the bureau, who asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the matter, personally viewed a metal engraving plate and a digital image of a Tubman $20 bill while it was being reviewed by engravers and Secret Service officials as recently as May 2018. This person said that the design appeared to be far along in the process.” He added that there was pride and excitement about the new note among the employees of the BEP.

Ms. Washington told Coin World on June 18 that the claim that production plates were made “was completely off-base, and what was actually perceived as such during a routine visit by a Secret Service Training class, was mischaracterized. Our designers and engravers create random stock images of various individuals for training purposes and they are also used to demonstrate different techniques. These images are not currency portraits, and are simply used to help new trainees (internal/external) learn about process. A training class would never be in the position to review a preliminary currency design, let alone something advanced.”

Despite the political pressure, and bills in both houses of Congress, a new $20 note in 2020 seems doubtful. That oft-mentioned date refers to proposed design concepts only. But no concept, including those proposed by Secretary Lew in 2016, has been ruled out, and until a new design is decided upon, neither Harriet Tubman nor the other subjects are off the table. The BEP stresses that no decision has been made by anyone and will not be until security elements are finalized. 

The security elements are being created in-house, although Crane Currency is under contract with the BEP to provide the paper for U.S. currency, and Crane has a robust security development team of its own that works in consultation with many central banks. The BEP, however, uses its own research and development teams to create unique and proprietary features that will be found only on U.S. currency.

Olijar reiterated that “it is too early to develop an integrated concept or design until security features are finalized. The aesthetics or look of the note has always come after and been driven by the security features. Everything remains on the table.” 

After that, extensive testing will be done that may necessitate further unanticipated design changes. 

It is fairly certain that the order of issue of future notes will follow the 2013 recommendation of the Advanced Counterfeit Deterrence (ACD) Steering Committee, that the next two denominations will be the $10 and the $50, with a new $20 waiting until 2030. 

The Federal Reserve will be the final decision maker as to when any new currency is actually introduced into circulation. 

This article was updated on June 25 to correct an error in a quotation.


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