Paper Money

Walrus skin notes from Russia top Heritage auction estimates

Two bank notes printed on a somewhat unique substrate, not cotton paper, not polymer, but walrus skin parchment, stood out in the Jan. 9 Heritage Auctions world currency auction in Orlando. The pair, a 50-kopek note and a 25-kopek note, were issued by the Russian-American Company roughly between the 1820s and 1860s.

The company was a trading monopoly created by Russia’s Czar Paul I in 1799 under a 20-year charter with exclusive trading rights in North America north of 55 degrees latitude. The company was also responsible for the administration of Russian settlements there, stretching from the Aleutian Islands, through Alaska, and as far south as Sonoma, California. It also had built  a trading post, Fort Elizabeth, on the island of Kauai, Hawaii.

The money was used, says Paper Money Guaranty, who graded both of the sold items, to pay hunters and company employees. It could be exchanged for goods at the company stores. The notes were made from recycled walrus skin bags that were originally used to transport otter skins to China. They were known in Russia as Kozhanye (skins). Denominations issued included 10-, 25- and 50-kopek notes and 1-, 5-, 10- and 25-ruble issues. 

Heritage estimates that not more than 200 examples of all denominations combined are known today. A significant number of them are impounded in museums, including ones in St. Petersburg in Russia, Washington, and Northern Ireland. 

Both of the Orlando pieces are from the prodigious holdings of the American collector Henry H. Clifford, that was auctioned by Bowers & Ruddy Galleries in March 1982. There, they each realized $2,300 on initial estimates of $4,000 to $6,750 each.

Thirty-seven years later, they were both given estimates of $25,000 to $50,000, fitting as they are both ranked at or near the top of the finest known. The 50-kopek note blew past that price, finally settling at $66,000, including the buyer’s fee, in a grade of Choice Uncirculated 64 Exceptional Paper Quality (the 1982 sale called it Extremely Fine, with no signs of wear and some light smudges on the back).

More pieces are known of the 25-kopek note than of the 50-kopek issue. The one in the auction was designated Choice Uncirculated 63 (considerably better than the grade of Choice Very Fine with a few smudges and no obvious creases that was assigned decades ago). It realized $36,000.

Based on the illustrations in the 1982 catalog, it is entirely possible that the pieces were somewhat undergraded at the time.

There is a reason for the difference in shape of the two notes. The late Randolph Zander, a noted authority on Russian numismatics, explained in a 1996 article that beginning in around 1842, changes were made by hand to certain notes as a way of allowing the mostly illiterate native populations to differentiate the denominations. The upper corners of the 10-kopek notes were holed, all four corners of the 25-kopek pieces were clipped, and the 50-kopek notes were clipped at only the upper two corners.

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