Dr. Sol Taylor

Hot on the Trail of Funny Money

By Dr. Sol Taylor
"Making Cents"
The Signal
Saturday, December 30, 2006

hat is "funny money"? To the Secret Service, any attempt to copy United States currency (or stamps or official documents) is considered counterfeiting and thus a federal crime. Here are some examples of such enforcement policies.
    Back in college days, some vendor at Coney Island was selling beach towels bearing images of United States currency. Most popular was the $100 bill. Now, these towels are about 3 feet by 5 feet and made of terry cloth. The images are not that clear, close up, and after a couple of washings they lose some color, as well. Some eager-beaver agents actually went about the beach, confiscating towels from beachgoers and the vendors selling them.
    The late Hy Brown, a dealer from Ohio who spent half of his time in Palm Springs, came up with the novel $1 million bill — completely original and not even close to any real U.S. notes. The Secret Service swooped down on him at one Long Beach Coin, Stamp and Collectibles Expo and confiscated the lot — plus the plates from the printer who made them.
    A postscript: I noted that these very same notes were offered at recent coin shows, some 25 years later. I guess the Secret Service decided they were safe and sold them.
    In a related news story a few years ago, a man "passed" one of these notes at a Kmart or Wal-Mart store. The manager called the FBI, which made the bust. The owner said it was an obvious gag. I hope he smiled for his mug shot.
    In the early 1980s, the Treasury Department printed tens of millions of gasoline coupons in the event that gasoline would be rationed. The stamps, about 2 inches by 3 inches, included a portrait of George Washington — the same as on the $1 bill. When it was decided that gasoline would not be rationed, the notes were sent off for storage. It later was discovered that they could be used in machines that accept currency for payment of gasoline and certain other products. For fear they might be misued, the entire printing was ordered destroyed. One full sheet of notes was recently offered for sale at a major coin auction. (Amazing how some things manage to escape "total recall and destruction.")
    Counterfeit postage stamps are not high on the Secret Service agenda, mainly because there are so few verified cases to pursue. When 25-cent stamps were in use, the series with the honey bee appeared with various colors missing — a printing error at the Bureau of Printing and Engraving, which manufactured postage stamps at the time. Some bulk-mail users were using these "missing color" stamps, and the Secret Service confiscated their unused stock.
    Later it was discovered that the BEP had made the stamps, and the errors are valuable philatelic items. Meanwhile, the 25-cent Jack London stamps were widely counterfeited and not detected until well after the postage rate changed, when collectors noted that the color ran when they soaked the used stamps off of paper envelopes. The FBI is still trying to track down the counterfeiters.

    Dr. Sol Taylor of Sherman Oaks is president of the Society of Lincoln Cent Collectors and author of The Standard Guide to the Lincoln Cent. Click here for ordering information.