Dr. Sol Taylor

Funny Money — or Not?

By Dr. Sol Taylor
"Making Cents"
The Signal
Saturday, June 30, 2007

n our country's monetary history, we have had some odd kinds of currency, ranging from privately issued trade tokens, private paper money and even encased postage stamps.
    I was offered a 25-cent note from the Civil War period issued by the Treasury to offset the severe coin shortage. The owner thought it was "funny money," that is, a fantasy note printed privately for some purpose other than currency. Actually, the Treasury issued a series of small fractional notes in denominations ranging from five cents to 50 cents, including such oddities as a 15-cent note.
    Before the first federally issued banknotes came about during the Civil War, many local banks and even railroads and some businesses issued their own paper currency, often known as "broken bank" notes or "wildcat" notes. They came in many denominations, including $6, $7, $9, and some even had dollar-and-cents combinations.
    The Confederate States of America also issued many denominations of paper money, which even before the war's end had lost all buying power and was declared worthless by war's end. Huge quantities of Confederate notes were subsequently destroyed. Today these are highly sought after by collectors.
    Every now and then, I am offered a Confederate note and am asked if it is redeemable. Of course, the answer is no; however, it might have some collector value. In fact, the higher denomination notes such as the $100 and $500 are quite valuable and are worth more than the face value of the note.
    In the same vein, I have been offered the very popular fantasy $1,000 United States Note of the 1830s, which was an advertising gimmick printed some 50 years ago. It has no value.
    The same is true of a more modern fantasy: the $1,000,000 bill printed and distributed by the late Hy Brown of Ohio. Most of these notes were confiscated from Brown when the Secret Service invoked the anti-counterfeiting statutes. More recently, some of these notes have shown up at dealers' tables at coin shows. They have no real value.
    A more recent and very colorful $100,000 fantasy note has made its appearance. It is much larger than current bills and features the Mona Lisa and some official-looking seals, numbers, and scroll work similar to current paper money. Because of its size difference, chances are the Secret Service would not pounce on these notes. They are very colorful, and I saw some recently for sale for 50 cents.
    Some people have stepped over the line by copying real money and using a portion of the notes on a folded business card. Such fantasies are often found lying around in parking lots, tempting people to bend down and pick them up. This practice is probably illegal.
    Many years ago, Hollywood movies had to use make-believe money or Mexican currency when showing wads of cash in a film. Photocopies of real, obsolete currency was used in Westerns set in the late1800s when large-sized notes were in use. However, more recent films such as "Chinatown" had to use fake bills, since the counterfeiting laws prohibited even filming real notes. Some of this "movie money" shows up at coin shows, since new laws permit the use of real money in movies. Of course, many people know about "Monopoly money" -- the small, colorful currency used with the popular board game. These notes are of no value, although we sometimes see uncut sheets of these notes being offered for sale.
    Finally, the Bureau of Engraving and Printing offers uncut sheets of notes for sale at its Washington site and various show venues. Some people believe such sheets are not really money. But these souvenirs are real money and can be spent (singly), if desired. However, since they cost more than face value as uncut sheets, chances are, they never would be spent.
    Uncut sheets are known for many notes printed by the BEP, going back many years. In the late 1800s, some uncut sheets would contain four notes: three of one denomination and a fourth of a different denomination. These are very scarce and valuable collector items.
    The anti-counterfeiting laws are quite far-reaching and can be enforced if someone has copied real money in one form or another within the guidelines of the Treasury Department.
    One skilled artist sells excellent paintings of real currency at coin shows. These come close to being illegal, but vary just enough to evade seizure, since they are artworks and hardly would be used in general commerce. This broad allowance shows up with the American Numismatic Association gift shop selling neckties with images of real currency and vendors selling T-shirts at coin shows with images of real currency and key chains with miniature plastic banknotes.
    The difference between "funny money" and the real thing lies in the answer to the question: "Who made it?"

    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.