Collectors know that there’s more to the world of collecting money than coins. Antique paper money can be just as, if not more fascinating, to collect for the engaged individual than coins, and paper money comes with a certain fragility that makes it all the more difficult to find in excellent condition.
At Muzeum, we don’t just deal in coins. Thanks to our extensive database of numismatic collectors, we are always interested in paper money and banknotes. As contemporary society moves increasingly toward a cashless world, the market for antique and interesting paper money continues to grow, driven by nostalgia and an appreciation for the rare and unique.
If you are interested in collecting paper money and banknotes yourself, get started with this guide. We’ll explain the qualities that make paper money and banknotes fascinating to collectors, what types of paper currency currently have collectible value, and how to make sure your paper money stays in great condition.
Paper money has a long history, with some of the first examples issued as early as the 1100s during China’s Song Dynasty, largely due to a shortage of copper.
The practice became more global beginning in the late 1700s, although there are also earlier examples of phenomena like card money in New France, where soldiers were paid with playing cards that had the monetary value written on them.
However, it wasn’t until 1833 that banks would move on from issuing what were effectively promissory notes (a promise to the bearer that they could redeem the note for its value in real coinage) and start issuing banknotes as legal tender itself.
The latest innovation in paper money was the invention of polymer notes. These were first used in Australia and have become more common as polymer notes are more durable and more resistant to water.
What kinds of bills are valuable to collectors? Before you start collecting antique paper money yourself, it helps to learn which features actually make a banknote interesting. Collectibles only derive their value from a collector’s willingness to pay for them, and that often starts with something like an interesting design, history, or another niche that catches a collector’s interest. These are some of the main features that go into the value of antique paper money.
Misprints:Paper printing isn’t always perfect, and error notes are often high on the list of valuable notes. These are notes where something went wrong in the production, such as printing errors, the wrong signature, cutting errors, partial or missing serial numbers, and other issues that make the note both unique and rare.
Some great examples of valuable misprints are two batches of American $1 bills from 2014 and 2016, where dollar bills with matching serial numbers were accidentally released into circulation. Collectors are willing to pay large sums for matching pairs in good condition.
Discontinued Bills:Discontinued bills vary widely in value, with older, rarer bills usually getting more interest from collectors. More recently-discontinued bills are usually still found in abundance, but an avid collector may want to take steps to preserve such bills now, ensuring they have a high-quality example in the future. For example, the Canadian dollar bill, discontinued in 1989 with the introduction of the one-dollar coin, can sell for several hundred dollars if it is in the right condition.
Rare Banknotes:The rarer a banknote, the more likely it is to have collectible value. Antique paper money (bills that are more than 100 years old) is more likely to be rare because of the difficulty of keeping them in good condition, as well as error notes, uncommon denominations, and paper money from the 19th century.
Serial Numbers:Some collectors are interested in unique or significant serial numbers. Banknotes all have a serial number denoting where and when it was printed, and some collectors like bills that were made on significant dates or that display a certain pattern.
Sets:Some collectors like to create sets with their paper money. These can be based on a theme, such as the art depicted on the bills, the seal types used on currency, or other commonalities.
There are many different qualities a collector could look for. Given the variety of tastes and motivations you find on the paper money market, it’s important that when you decide to sell antique paper money, you take it to someone who deeply understands the market.
If you choose to sell your antique or vintage paper money, you can get a free evaluation at Muzeum. We regularly keep an eye out for banknotes that collectors are interested in, and we can offer better prices because we have an intimate knowledge of the market.
We look for a wide variety of banknotes at Muzeum, but we tend to focus on these notes:
As a Canadian company, we are always interested in collecting Canadian currency that holds historical and collectible value, as well as international notes.
If you are just getting started with antique paper money, the first thing you should know is how to preserve and store collectibles. Paper money can deteriorate over time if you’re not careful. These are the steps you can take to preserve your paper money collection through the years.
First, you will want to find a cool, dry place where you can store your collection. The recommended humidity for storing paper money is between 45 and 55%, which is relatively low. The place should also be dark and kept well away from direct sunlight, which can cause currency to fade. When it comes to temperature, the room should not exceed 24 degrees Celsius (75 Fahrenheit).
If you want to keep your currency on display, consider investing in a case that uses UV-blocking Plexiglass.
Mylar sheets and sleeves are great for storing paper money. They allow you to display both sides of the notes and allow people to admire them without touching them. The oils from human skin can degrade the quality of the paper currency. Mylar is both PVC and acid-free, so it will not have a negative impact on your paper currency.
Damage to banknotes often happens slowly. Checking their condition fairly frequently will help you identify any damage before they are too far gone. You can make adjustments to your storage setup or move them into a room out of direct sunlight or with better climate control.
If you have to remove a bill from its case or Mylar sleeve, you may want to use soft cotton gloves to handle it. This will keep your fingerprints and natural oils from damaging the notes.
These simple precautions should help you protect antique paper money from damage over time. Part of the appeal of collecting antique paper money is putting together a collection that can stand the test of time.
There are two primary factors in the evaluation of the value of paper money: rarity and condition. The next section will look at the grading system that classifies conditions. When it comes to determining rarity, collectors will look at the number of pieces that were originally printed, as well as variations that can make one piece more unique, such as a low serial number or variations like signatures and serial prefixes.
Bills that were produced in the millions will not likely be worth much on the collectors’ market because they are so easy to obtain. Rarer bills fetch a premium precisely because they are harder to come by.
In Canada, paper money is graded according to a system used by Banknote Certification Services (BCS), of which Muzeum is an authorized dealer.
When it comes to collectibles, the most important grades are UNC (Uncirculated), Choice UNC, and Gem UNC.
UNC Grade:For a bill to meet the basic UNC grade, it can have up to three allowable imperfections, but it must show no signs of circulation. Some of the imperfections allowed include counting creases, flicks, cutting cups, printer ink smears, misaligned printing, imperfect cutting, and band marks. You’ll note that all UNC grades give you a crisp, clean, and firm paper bill.
Choice UNC:Bills that fall into this category have both some imperfections and some desirable qualities. For example, desirable qualities may include bright colours and eye appeal, and clear, legible signatures. These are near-perfect original notes.
Gem UNC:This is the highest grade of paper money condition. They have zero imperfections, are perfectly cut, feature strong embossing, and are completely free of printer ink errors. They have perfect paper quality and have never been processed.
In addition to UNC grades, there is a long list of circulated grades, ranging from AU (which features some signs of wear) all the way down to Fair-1, which is a note that is barely intact, or AG-2, which is heavily soiled and tattered.
When you first start collecting paper currency, you should almost never attempt to clean or repair it. A banknote sold as a collectible will likely have been stored carefully, and even though notes that were once in circulation can carry a lot of dirt and microbes, attempts to clean or restore currency can do even more damage to its value.
Tears in the bill are unfortunate, but you should not attempt to “repair” them using tape or anything else. You will only hurt the appeal to collectors even more than the original tear.
Now you know how to get started collecting antique paper money. Look for rare, uncirculated bills, make sure you handle and store bills with care, and get your paper money evaluated when and if you choose to sell.
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