Courtesy Autographs on US Currency
This page is intended to serve as a guide to courtesy autographs on US currency. If you like collecting autographs and paper money, then courtesy autographs are the thing for you. The popularity of this fascinating niche has been increasing for decades along with the hobby of notaphily (paper money collecting) in general. Read on to find out exactly what courtesy autographs are and how you can find them.
Signatures on Currency or Who Are Those Guys?
In the United States, paper money carries the printed signatures of the Treasurer and the Secretary of the Treasury. Signatures were originally added to currency as a security feature; they can be hard to duplicate by hand. The first banknotes to carry signatures were actually signed by the officials themselves. But later, as massive quantities of notes were produced, it became more feasible to print the signatures on instead.
The Secretary of the Treasury's job concerns general finance and monetary matters. He (all Secretaries of the Treasury have been men) advises the President on economic issues and such. The Treasurer advises the Secretary on matters such as the production of coins and currency. She (there hasn't been a male Treasurer since 1949) is also the National Honorary Director of the Savings Bonds Program. Both the Treasurer and the Secretary of the Treasury often attend public events and ceremonies.
What Is a Courtesy Autograph, and How Popular Are They?
Courtesy autographs are bills that carry a Secretary's and/or Treasurer's actual autograph along with their printed signature. See below for an example. In the 1950s and '60s, the courtesy autograph niche took off among notaphilists (paper money collectors), although there are examples from the '40s and even a handful from the '30s. In fact, all Treasurers and Secretaries of the Treasury since the 1950s have autographed bills (some more than others). Courtesy autographs are now a small but respectable subsection of the currency collecting hobby.
This bill was signed by Ivy Baker Priest, who was the Treasurer during the Eisenhower administration. Her printed signature can be found below her autograph.
What Are They Worth?
A $1 bill with a courtesy autograph can be worth anywhere from $20 to $200 or more. The value depends on several factors:
- Face Value. This is fairly obvious. An autographed $100 bill is almost always going to be worth more than an autographed $1 bill. Most courtesy autographs are $1 bills. $2 bills are also relatively popular, considering the scarcity of the denomination.
- Condition. Like any other collectible bill, condition is a factor when it comes to value. A courtesy autograph in Fine condition will not be worth as much as an About Uncirculated bill signed by the same person. Similarly, a bill graded by an authority such as CGA will often sell for more simply because those grading services are fairly reputable and experienced, and because they put each bill in a cute plastic holder. (More information on grading currency.)
- Who Signed It. Some Secretaries and Treasurers were known to autograph more bills than others. Generally, Treasurers' autographs are more common (and thus less valuable) than Secretaries' autographs. Maybe it's because the women are more outgoing, and therefore more likely to sign autographs than the men? Scour the web to find how common your courtesy autograph is compared to others. (Treasurers Francine I. Neff and Mary Ellen Withrow are among the most frequent signers.)
- Double Autographs. A double courtesy autograph, a bill signed by both the Treasurer and the Secretary of the Treasury, is worth more than a bill with just one signature. Double courtesy autographs are generally worth about twice as much as a single autograph. They can go for around $50-300.
- Other Factors. A courtesy autograph is usually worth more if it is a star note, an uncommon series or block, an error, or not a Federal Reserve Note, or if it has an interesting serial number. Be sure to take any extra factors such as this into account.
What Not to Look For
There are certain undesirable qualities of courtesy autographs that can drive down their potential value:
- Weak Ink. A signature in pencil or faded ink will generally be less desirable than the same one in strong, bold ink.
- Personal Messages. A bill signed "To Joe Shmoe - Best Wishes, William E. Simon" will not command as much of a premium as a bill just signed "William E. Simon." There is an exception, however. If you are Joe Shmoe, then the bill will have greater personal value.
- Non-matching Signatures. A bill with the printed signatures of Treasurer Angela M. Buchanan and Secretary Donald T. Regan will not be worth as much if it's autographed by, say, Treasurer Katherine Davalos Ortega. The autograph should be of the same person whose signature is printed on the bill. Most Treasurers and Secretaries will only sign bills with their printed signature anyway.
- Initials. An initialed bill should generally be worth less than a bill with a full signature, unless perhaps that signer usually initialed rather than wrote his or her full name. Secretaries Robert E. Rubin and Lawrence H. Summers signed few bills and usually initialed them.
- Other Signatures. If a courtesy autograph also carries the signature of someone that nobody's ever heard of, the bill will probably be worth less.
The Ideal Courtesy Autograph
Searching for the ideal courtesy autograph for your collection or inventory is a subjective process, but there are some criteria that are generally accepted to be part of the "ideal" specimen. The ideal bill is in at least Uncirculated condition and has the signer's autograph in bold, clear ink. The autograph bears a resemblance to the printed signature. There are no extra markings on the bill. And, well, that's about it. But your mileage may vary; for example, you may not be picky about the condition or whether there are other signatures on the bill. To each his own, right?
Okay, So How Do I Get Them?
There are several ways to obtain courtesy autographs.
First, you could buy them from a paper money dealer. This is the easiest way. Remember that dealers are out to make money, so they're likely to charge you more (sometimes a lot more) than the value you would assign yourself. But if it's convenience you're after, some dealers do have courtesy autographs for sale.
- Lew Dufault - Has a great selection of courtesy autographs. He tells me he has many more than are listed on the site, so ask him about them. However, his prices will set you back quite a bit.
- Don C. Kelly - Occasionally has a courtesy autograph or two listed on his Small Size page. In spite of the very limited selection, his prices for courtesies are far below the prices you'll pay anywhere else. From him I've bought several bills ranging $20 to $50.
The second option is eBay. Although there are always a few courtesy autographs for sale there, you have to remember that there's always someone who can outbid you. I almost bought a courtesy on eBay, but I was outbid in the last few hours of the auction, and I didn't want to pay an even more ridiculous price than the other guy. Plus there's always that chance that the autograph isn't legit, though I've never heard of a courtesy autgraph being forged. But if you're an eBayphile, here's a quick link to search for courtesy autographs.
The third option is to look up the mailing addresses of former Treasurers and Secretaries of the Treasury and send them bills with their respective signatures with a polite request for an autograph. Some of their addresses are easy to find because they often go on to be company directors and things of that nature. Do some Googling.
The last option is to write to the current Treasurer and Secretary of the Treasury. You can mail him or her a polite request for an autographed note, and their personal secretary will send you a crisp, fresh autographed bill in a neat little folder. However, it's important to note that the bills you get back will probably have been signed by an autopen machine. They look like real autographs, but each one is identical to the next. You can request that the bill be signed by hand (and not by a machine, to make it inescapably clear), but I haven't tried this approach and can't vouch for its reliability.
The current Treasurer is Anna Escobedo Cabral, and the current Secretary of the Treasury is Henry M. Paulson, Jr. Their signatures appear on Series 2006 notes. Their mailing addresses are as follows:
Treasurer of the United States
U.S. Department of the Treasury
1500 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20220
Secretary of the Treasury
U.S. Department of the Treasury
1500 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20220
The Big Conclusion
I hope this page has helped you in your quest to collect courtesy autographs. Remember that it can be a very expensive quest if you try to buy old autographs from dealers, but if you obtain an autograph directly from current or former Treasurers and Secretaries, you'll have a pretty impressive collection in a few decades. In spite of the costs involved, it can be a very rewarding niche of the hobby of notaphily.
Last updated January 8, 2008
Created April 3, 2004