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Take Care When Assembling a Set
By Bill Brandimore, Bank Note Reporter
September 23, 2013

This article was originally printed in Bank Note Reporter.
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How do you make sure you get a good note for your collection? First, and very simplistically, you don’t select a bad one.

Look out for tears, holes, soiling, poor centering or graffiti. Don’t fall in love with a note just because it’s a cool entity.

Examine prospective purchases under a strong light. Look for notes that are good for the grade, with nice margins and vivid color. Seek notes with some crackle to them. Limp notes indicate lots of use and will not reach a Fine grade. At the F level you begin to get a little crispness.

Be willing to pay a little more for notes that are solid for the grade. They will be easier to sell or trade at a later time. You only get to buy quality once. If you like the note, others will as well. If you don’t really like the note but want to fill a hole in a set you’re working on, don’t buy it, as you will really feel bad when you get it home and every other time you look at it. It will be hard to trade in or sell.

When you are buying raw notes try to get more than the minimum grade. Very Fine-20 notes aren’t nearly as attractive as 25s or 30s. F-15 notes are sometimes actually VF-20s. Try to get the best you can afford.

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When buying small-size notes, be aware that bills manufactured before 1957, as a general rule, were printed on plates using wet technology. As the notes dried they got a little crinkle to them, or paper wave—texture that can be seen when you examine the notes. Strong embossing is a good sign that a note is original. Look for embossing of the serial numbers on backs, in particular, and a strong seal imprint is also a good indicator of paper quality.

Notes manufactured from 1957 onward, as in the case of $1 Silver Certificates, were printed with a dry technology that was obviously more efficient, as you did not need to wait for notes to dry before going to the next printing. The paper will be flat, with no real texture to it. They will exhibit embossing if they haven’t been pressed out and that is worth looking for to get some assurance that the note is original.

By buying third-party graded notes you avoid some of this risk. Know, however, that in notes above VF-25, the lack of PPQ or EPQ notations on the holder indicate that the note is not original. It has probably been pressed. Thus it is worth a bit less than notes that are designated as exceptional paper quality, etc.

Notes with an “apparent” or “net” designation alert the buyer to the fact that the note has a problem, generally reducing value by as much as one-third. Really stay away from notes that have been reconstructed or repaired, as that is the worst of defects. Tears and pin holes sometimes happen. Repairs are usually done to deceive.

When you are dealing with large-size notes the same precautions apply. In the realm of National Bank Notes, however, don’t pass on a really rare bank over condition issues unless you are only interested in type notes.

When assembling a type note set you want to find a common bank, not a rare one. You also should be looking for a fairly common state. New York, Michigan, Illinois, Ohio are just a few of the states that have ample supplies of notes to choose from. By really rare, I mean five or less notes on a given bank. Any more than that in the old days was a rarity. Four notes and you could usually bide your time until another note from that bank surfaced.

Of course, we all want high-grade notes, but in the case of some National Bank Notes, no high-grade ones may exist. Competition can get fierce when several collectors are collecting the same geographical area. Remember, there were about 14,000 national banks that issued notes and rarity there generally is applied to specific bank titles.

First Charter notes are a bit more challenging, as some types are pretty tough to find. $1s and $5s are available for a type set, and $10s can be found. $20s can be hard to find, especially from the Original Series. $50 and $100 First Charters go immediately to five-figure value and up. Because of the beautiful portraits on the backs of First Charter notes they make a really impressive type set.

All the large-size notes were printed with wet printing technology, so pressed-out notes are to be avoided if you have options.

Don’t be afraid to collect within your budget, however, as many collectors are happy with F or VF large-size notes. My budget forces me to look at tougher types, like $5 Educationals and higher denomination coin notes, in the F to VF range. I avoid collecting soiled or damaged notes. The apparent or net notes in my collection were purchased raw and I found out to my chagrin that they had problems I had missed. A tiny repair on a nice porthole $5 Silver Certificate I purchased meant a loss of $750 or so in value when I got my note back from the graders to discover it was an Apparent VF-30, not the nice Extremely Fine-40 I thought I had purchased years ago.

As I work on my collection, I particularly enjoy making up sets. My recent completion of a 1935 $1 Silver Certificate star note set is a good example. All together there are 20 varieties. In some issues there were lengthy runs of stars that called for, as in the case of the 1935D series, B*, C* and D* stars blocks. Lots of 1935D notes were printed and that required lots of stars.

They also had a change in design when the margin on the back of the note was reduced somewhat at the bottom of the note. This resulted in Narrow and Wide varieties, with B* and C* blocks printed in the Wide variety and B*, C* and D* block Narrow varieties. The D* block had a relatively short run and is more expensive in high grade. The Wide C* is also pricey as not very many of them seemed to have been saved.

With that in mind, I didn’t feel badly about putting an EF-40 example of the Wide C* in my otherwise uncirculated set. The mules of 1935 and 1935A were especially hard to locate, although I managed to convince myself that my 1935 mule star was an investment justifying a more expensive than usual expenditure.

With these thoughts in mind, I hope you will enjoy your collecting and the accumulation of sets in an even more positive light. We have a great hobby but costly mistakes in your purchases can really drain out the fun.

Hopefully you had a chance to get to the ANA show in Chicago. It is always an entertaining experience.

The next major show I will attend is the Michigan state show over the Thanksgiving holiday. It is a great show with lots of paper. So give it a shot if it is within your travel range. As always, I enjoy your questions and comments, so please email me with them at

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• See what guides and supplies our editors recommend for keeping up with your collection.


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