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Old Bank Notes

by Judith Miller

Old Bank Notes

Although paper money, printed on strong mulberry bark, was in use in China when Marco Polo visited the country in the 13th century, it was not until 1661 that the first bank note was issued in the West. Even so, until the outbreak of World War 1, merchants, financiers and the rich were the principal users of paper money, rather than ordinary people, for whom coins were the common currency. As a result, 17th and 18th century notes are fairly rare. However, a considerable amount of paper money was produced in the 19th century. In August 1914, the Bank of England called in gold coins, fearing that they would be hoarded during the coming war, and replaced them with emergency £1 and 10 shilling notes. These first issue notes, known as "Bradburys" after the Secretary to the Treasury who signed them, were printed on flimsy postage stamp paper, and because of this very few have survived in good condition. Notes of better quality and design soon replaced these, and many notes from the 1920s to the 1940s can be found for relatively little cost. Another rich field for collectors is bank notes issued from the late 18th century to the 1920s by privately owned British provincial banks, many of which went bankrupt, or later merged with bigger banks.

Many old bank notes are associated with past economic disasters or political crises. The most notorious are German notes issued in the 1920s, when rampant inflation made a packet of cigarettes cost a million marks. Thousands of the high-denomination notes issued then can still be found, but are virtually worthless. Of greater interest are 19th century foreign bank notes, particularly US Confederate notes and pre-Revolutionary Russian notes, which are much sought after by collectors.

Old Bank Notes

In the first two decades of the 20th century, paper money largely supplanted coins for everyday transactions in most European countries. Bank notes were designed to be as forgery-proof as possible. Papers and inks were carefully chosen, and engraving was extremely complex, demanding the highest levels of skill. Designs varied from country to country. Early British notes were fairly austere and, except for the third issue Treasury notes of 1917, did not carry the monarch's portrait until 1960. Italian and French notes often carried portraits of national heroes, while Spanish notes were sometimes decorated with vignettes based on paintings in Madrid's Prado Museum.

Old Bank Notes

A lot of paper money has survived from late Victorian and Edwardian times – few people could bring themselves to throw it away – and is easy to find at auctions and from specialist dealers. Because there are so many old bank notes around, most collectors tend to specialize, usually in notes from a particular country or period of history. For the beginner, however, a good way of starting is to buy a job lot of miscellaneous notes, usually for a very reasonable price, and then to study them to see what interests you most.

Condition is an important factor in deciding the value of notes. A very rare item will obviously be desirable even if it is battered, but generally you should try to buy printed material in the best condition you can afford. Most catalogues and price guides follow a type of classification also used for coins and postage stamps. Completely pristine notes without any kind of crease of blemish are described as UNC (uncirculated). The grading then goes: EF (extremely fine); VF (very fine); F (fine); VG (very good); G (good) and P (poor). The wording is somewhat misleading, as VG implies that a note has small folds, stains, pinholes and tears, although no serious blemises. Most collectors aim at F or better. Forgeries of bank notes do exist but it usually takes an expert to detect them. Some forgeries can be valuable in their own right.

Image Copyright, Marshall Cavendish