Paper Money

Serial number key to 1840 $1,000 note’s value

This December 1840 $1,000 note of the Bank of the United States bears serial number 8893, one digit different from the infamous replicas with serial number 8894.

Images courtesy of Stack’s Bowers Galleries.

Sometimes a single digit in a serial number can make a difference of thousands of dollars, and not because it is fancy in any way, shape, or form. In this case, the difference is between “8893” and “8894,” and that difference is $1,920.

That was the price paid by the winning bidder in a Stack’s Bowers Galleries Collectors Choice Online auction on July 29 for a Bank of the United States $1,000 note dated Dec. 15, 1840, with the 8893 number. It was in Paper Money Guaranty Choice Uncirculated 63 condition. The note was issued by the Philadelphia branch of the bank.

The value of a note numbered 8894 is nothing, because that is the serial number of one of the most common fakes in history. In the days before the internet supplanted dealers as the public’s go-to source for valuations, it was rare for a week to go by without at least one phone call that started, “I have a $1,000 bill from 1840. What’s it worth?” When we would shock the caller with the response, “It’s serial number is 8894, isn’t it, and if so, it’s worthless.” The disappointment, and sometimes even anger, was palpable.

The fake, with its tell-tale crisp, fake parchment paper, was produced in enormous quantities in the 1960s, well before the Hobby Protection Act of 1974 would have required the word COPY to be printed on it. Among others, it was used in promotions in cereal boxes, by check printers, by the Longines Symphonette Society, and for sale with similar fakes in packs by souvenir sellers.

The original note was printed by Draper, Toppan, Longacre & Company of Philadelphia and New York. A vignette of the bank building is in its center with six portrait vignettes — David Rittenhouse, William Penn, and Thomas Paine at the left edges and Robert Fulton, Benjamin Franklin, and Robert Morris on the right.

Despite the grand title, the “Bank of the United States” was a private bank. The original Bank of the United States, was a national central bank that was established in 1791 under a proposal by Alexander Hamilton as a place to keep federal funds and be a government fiscal agent. Congress gave it a 20-year charter, under which it conducted both private and government business.

The bank was controversial politically, with Jeffersonian agrarian interests firmly against it. When the charter expired in 1811, it went out of business.

The financial difficulties of the War of 1812 led to the charter of the Second Bank of the United States in 1816. It operated in a similar matter and engendered the same political acrimony. It was an issue in the 1832 election, with President Andrew Jackson so vehement in his opposition that six months after his second inauguration in March of 1833 he announced that he would no longer use it, withdrew all federal funds, and forbade further deposits. When the charter expired in 1836, it was reincarnated as a commercial bank under the laws of Pennsylvania. It failed on Feb. 4, 1841, not long after the $1,000 notes were issued.

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