Paper Money

Monday Morning Brief: What were collectors scared of in 1919?

A century ago, the seizure of obsolete paper money caused collectors to be concerned that their collections were at the risk of government confiscation.

Original images courtesy of Wendell Wolka.

A century ago, the November 1919 issue of The Numismatist published a paper delivered by sometimes controversial hobby legend Farran Zerbe about recent public concerns regarding the legitimacy of collecting obsolete bank notes.

Zerbe referenced “recent publicity given unwarranted seizures of obsolete paper money has produced uneasiness among some collectors as to the future right and security in the purchase, possession and sale of specimens of this class.”

No new laws or regulations had made such notes illegal to possess, Zerbe wrote, adding  that the Treasury Department, whose Secret Service branch was charged with protecting the nation’s currency from counterfeiting, had assured him “that no drastic action need be anticipated.” However, he was told that interpretation of the law was subject to change, particularly as the personnel who enforced the law was “constantly changing ...”

Federal laws prohibited the possession of anything in similitude to federal paper money and similar items — and these laws were sometimes enforced to the level of absurdity. Paintings that included representations of paper money were sometimes seized by the government, as were promotional items that vaguely resembled money. In 1904, Zerbe wrote, one district attorney ordered a local businessman to take down advertising board signs depicting a Morgan dollar and a message, “This is what we save you,” as violating the law. Zerbe added that a district attorney in East St. Louis made the opposite ruling, prompting the owner to move his advertising boards to that city, where they presumably were unmolested by government officials.

Today, collectors can own obsolete notes of all kinds without fear of government confiscation. However, it has not been that many years since money artists like J.S.G. Boggs were charged with counterfeiting for simply creating their art, and it was not until the 1980s that a federal law prohibiting depiction of U.S. paper money was overturned by the courts.

In some ways, not as much has changed as one would think.

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