Getting Started with Collecting Paper Money

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1869 $1 Legal Tender Large Size Type Rainbow Ace (Wikipedia)

Getting Started with Collecting Paper Money

If you have become interested in collecting paper money, it's natural to want to start buying anything that looks interesting. But the important first step is to do some research to help you decide what type(s) of paper money you are really interested in collecting.

A good start is to review the information on this website for what you are potentially interested in collecting. The main page will give you a brief overview on each of the collecting categories, along with a link to a home page with much more detailed information on that category, and links to dig deeper if you're really interested.

Below are other topics and Frequently Asked Questions to help you get started with this exciting hobby.

Do Your Homework

One of the things you will often hear from experienced collectors is 'Read the book before you buy the note'. An educated collector will almost always make better buying decisions.

  • Each home page on this wiki lists research resources for that collecting category, including reference books, videos and websites for beginning to advanced collectors, as well as more specialized resources.
  • Auction archives are a great way to look at lots of notes, as well as get a feel for current values. Links to the archives of major currency auction houses are listed on each of the category home pages.
  • Lurk on the Paper Money Forum. Search prior posts to learn about topics you are interested in and start asking questions. Other forum members are there to help.
  • Purchase and read Paper Money of the United States. A complete illustrated guide with valuations (22nd Edition-2021) by Arthur L. and Ira S. Friedberg
This is the standard reference guide for collecting paper money. First published in 1953 and now in its 22nd edition, it covers all types of U.S. paper money from colonial times to the present. Especially if you are not yet sure what type(s) of paper money you want to collect, this should be one of the first reference books you buy and will provide a great general overview of collecting U.S. paper money. This reference guide is widely available at major bookstores and online at amazon.com, etc.

Start Slow

  • You should start out buying lower priced notes, until you have a better idea what you are doing.
  • Everyone has made buying mistakes where they overpaid for a note (when they didn't need to overpay), or bought a note that they regretted later, for whatever reason. You can think of this as your 'tuition cost'. Doing your homework and researching a note before buying can help minimize your 'tuition cost'.

Currency Grading

The grade/condition of a note can have a huge impact on a its value/price. So it is very important to understand grading.

  • In general, beginners should only buy professionally graded notes (at least for more expensive notes) until you have confidence in your grading ability.
  • For high grade notes, it is especially important to buy professionally graded notes, since it is easy to miss minor issues or repairs that might have a significant impact on value.
  • Grading is more important for some collecting categories than others. For example, it is very important for Large Size Type notes, but not as important for National Bank Notes (if there are only a very few notes known for a national bank you are looking for, if you can find a note, you don't really care about its grade/condition).
  • There are two primary currency grading services for paper money: PMG and PCGS Banknote.
  • Here are links to their grading standards: PMG PCGS Banknote

Buying Notes

There are several options available for buying notes:

  • Currency Dealers
Many currency dealers have websites with scans of their notes for sale, making it easy to 'shop online'.
Find trustworthy dealer(s) that specialize in your collecting category.
The PCDA (Professional Currency Dealer Association) promotes honest, knowledgeable and ethical dealing between dealers and the public, and has over 100 dealer members). Check out the PCDA website and dealer locater
  • Coin/Currency Shows
The national coin/currency shows will have many dealers that have paper money for sale.
A list of national coin/currency shows includes:
  • The FUN Show (Floridan United Numismatists) held in Orlando, FL in early January.
  • The Central States Show (CSNS - Central States Numismatic Society), held in April in the Chicago area.
  • ANA (American Numismatic Association) has two major coin/currency shows each year held at varying locations:
  • The Long Beach Expo (held in the Long Beach, CA Convention Center) is held three times per year, in February, June and September.
Smaller local coin shows can also be a good place to find paper money for sale. They will often have some currency dealers, and the coin dealers often have some currency for sale.
  • Currency Auction houses
There are three primary auction houses that specialize in currency (All three have online auction archives that are very useful for researching past auction prices):
  • Other Collectors
As you get to know other collectors that share your collecting interests, there are often opportunities to buy/sell/trade notes.
  • Local Coin Dealers
Your local coin dealer(s) will often have some currency for sale, but they may not know much about it.
  • Ebay
Be careful on ebay, don't just jump on ebay and buy a note! Some ebay sellers have no idea what they are selling and will list notes at sky high buy-it-now prices or opening bids, trying to hook an uninformed buyer. So know what you are buying and what it is worth before bidding on Ebay.

How to Store and Care for your collection

It is important to remember that we are all just caretakers of these notes for future generations.

  • If you have purchased Graded/slabbed notes they are already enclosed in protective holders.
  • For raw notes, be sure to store them in Mylar holders for protection. Do NOT store notes in non-mylar plastic holders that may contain chemicals that can damage the notes over time! One good source for these Mylar holders is Denly's of Boston.
  • For your more valuable notes, you should store them in a Safe Deposit Box at your bank.
  • Use a spreadsheet or specialized software to keep track of your notes with cost, date purchased, seller, grade, comments, and a scan/photo of each note. Keeping track of this information is also important for insurance purposes.

Join Currency Clubs & Go To Shows

Meeting other collectors and currency dealers by going to club meetings and attending local and national coin/currency shows helps to establish those important relationships and will greatly increase your enjoyment of the hobby.

  • Join your Local Coin/Currency Club
If you have a coin or currency club in your area, you should check into joining. Many coin clubs also cater to currency collectors.
  • Join Online Currency Club(s)
If your collecting category has a dedicated collectors club (such as FCCB for Fractional Collectors), you should join it. These clubs issue newsletters with articles and information specific to your collecting interests, and usually have club meetings at major coin/currency shows.
You should also consider joining the Society of Paper Money Collectors. SPMC issues the award winning bi-monthly Paper Money Journal which covers a wide variety of U.S. and international currency topics. Membership also includes many other benefits.
  • Go to Coin/Currency Shows
Attending local and national coin/currency shows are a great way to meet other collectors and currency dealers. Most dealers that specialize in selling currency will be happy to answer your questions and help you learn about collecting paper money. Many shows also offer educational seminars on currency related topics.

Collecting on a Limited Budget

Collecting Paper Money can be an expensive hobby, depending on your collecting interests. But there are several fun & interesting options for collecting on a limited budget.

  • Fractionals: Collect the basic type set of 23 issue/denomination notes in average circulated condition (F-VF).
  • Obsoletes: Collecting Obsoletes based on theme or location can be relatively inexpensive if you purchase common notes.
  • Small Size Type: Collect a nice mid-grade note for each major small size type, or collect a later series by Federal Reserve District.

Videos for Beginning Collectors

This short video is a good basic introduction to collecting U.S. paper money, and also has a segment on World currency.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

  • What makes a note valuable?
Rarity, Demand and Grade/Condition all affect a note's value.
  • Should I clean my notes?
No. Often, cleaning a note does more damage than good. Original paper surfaces (even if dirty) are preferred over washed, faded and pressed notes.
Sometimes repairs or restorations (if done by a professional) are justified. For example, to remove tape or rust that would further damage the paper over time.
  • How does collecting paper money differ from collecting coins?
In general, paper money is much rarer than coins, but there are also fewer collectors, especially in specialized areas.
Rarity also means you need to be patient! It may take years for a note you are looking for to become available.
  • When did people start collecting U.S. paper money?
It appears there was not much numismatic interest in collecting any types of U.S. paper money during the 19th century. After the Civil War a few people collected Fractional Currency, and people often saved Confederate notes as souvenirs. During the early 20th century, as more information became available, collecting some types of paper money (such as Large Size Type) gradually became more popular. In 1953, with the publication of (the first edition) Paper Money of the United States by Robert Friedberg, collecting U.S. federal currency became much more popular. However, there was virtually no interest in collecting National Bank Notes until the 1960s & 1970s when information on the issuance (and rarity) of NBNs became available.
See this 2003 Paper Money Journal article by Q. David Bowers for a great overview of the history of collecting U.S. paper money.