Knowledge is power, and the paper money hobby is no exception. Always consult a reference guide, trustworthy paper money auction site, or fellow collector about a note’s authentic characteristics before buying it. This standard is doubly important for notes sold as “errors” or “rare mistakes”: unless you’re absolutely sure the note is authentic unslabbed or “raw”, don’t purchase it.
Question: I see a 1996 $100 bill with a blue seal up for sale. Is this an authentic printing error? Is this note genuine?
Answer: NO. The last time the government put blue seals on $100 bills was on the Large Size series of 1914 Federal Reserve Notes, the second variation of this type printed after an initial smaller run of red seal notes.
Question: A 1953 $2 Legal Tender/United States Note supposedly has an orange seal. Is this note authentic? Is it possible the seal was misprinted as orange?
Answer: NO. No Legal Tender/United States Note issued in the 20th century (1900-1963) ever had an orange seal. Yellow/Gold seals are only found on Gold Certificates and North Africa Emergency issue Silver Certificates.
Let’s have a look at an actual 1996 $100 bill with a blue seal being passed off as a “genuine” error:
Looking closely at the image, the blue treasury seal immediately stands out as suspicious. Additionally, the “B2” under the upper-left-hand serial number is also blue. Is this remotely possible?
No. According to Schwartz and Lindquist’s Standard Guide to Small-Size U.S. Paper Money: 1928 to Date NO small size Federal Reserve Notes have ever been printed with blue seals. If you have this great guidebook handy, flip through all the pages of $100 Federal Reserve Notes beginning with the series of 1928 to present: ALL were printed with green seals, just like any other small size Federal Reserve Note.
Further, a brief scan through Dr. Frederick Bart’s United States Paper Money Errors: A Comprehensive Catalog & Price Guide shows no history of any small size series of 1996 blue seal Federal Reserve Notes.
The devil’s Defense Lawyer’s rebuttals vs. Lady Justice
1. Defense Lawyer: The paper, engraving, color-shifting ink, and other security features make this note genuine; therefore, the blue seal is a legitimate error because the rest of the note is real.
Lady Justice: Wrong. Scam artists and fake “error” note producers can use modern desktop printing technology to color the seal and “B2” portion of the note blue, then attempt to pass it off as a rare find because the rest of the note is genuine.
This ploy originates from one of the oldest tricks in the counterfeiter’s book: bleaching out the engraving and ink on a legitimate low denomination note and then printing a likeness of a high denomination note on the paper to turn $1 into $100. If their printing job is above average, they might succeed in spending the note since the paper itself is genuine and would pass authenticity tests.
This was a common problem prior to the implementation of the embedded security thread in the recently redesigned Federal Reserve Notes. Now, the would-be counterfeiter must either remove the thread of a lower denomination and hope no one notices, or substitute their own thread; an extremely difficult feat to accomplish proficiently.
Given the availability of desktop printing technology – particularly color laser printers – an authentic $100 note worth $100 can easily be altered in minutes to produce a note with an “error” that could be sold for a profit. In this case the counterfeiter isn’t gaming the bank, casino, or grocery store but instead an unsuspecting collector.
2. Defense Lawyer: It takes blue and yellow to make green, any kindergartner knows that. This note didn’t get the yellow coating and escaped the B.E.P. undetected.
Lady Justice: Wrong again. While it is true that blue and yellow ink are printed separately to create varying colors on lithographic presses used to produce common print publications, United States currency is printed differently using the intaglio process. This process involves pressing paper into plates at extreme pressure to produce the “raised” feel of the ink on a freshly produced note.
The green Treasury Seal and serial numbers are printed AFTER the note gets its black impression. Most importantly, the green ink is premixed before it hits the paper. Think about it: sending notes through presses with two different ink colors for the same impression would be inefficient and prone to produce alignment errors. It’s faster and easier to print the green portion of the note on the paper once and send it off for cutting and packaging.
Publicly available descriptions of how United States currency is printed DOES NOT include any mention of a two-stage coloring method for the Treasury seal. More importantly, the Treasury has never printed a small sized Federal Reserve Note with a blue seal.
There’s a faint chance this could have happened as recently as the 1960s when Silver Certificates with blue seals were still being printed, but the likelihood of blue ink being used for Federal Reserve Note Treasury seals and serial numbers is extremely remote and would have been easy for Treasury officials to spot. Furthermore, if blue ink did show up on any $100 bill’s seal, it would have happened with the old currency design, NOT the new one changed 50 years later. That makes the above 1996 note even more questionable.
3. Defense Lawyer: My client received this note in a cash withdrawal from the bank. Obviously, it must be authentic or else the bank would have removed it from circulation.
Lady Justice: Not so. First, your client might be lying about getting the note from the bank. 🙂
If he isn’t, retail bank tellers are known to make occasional errors and might mistakenly accept counterfeit money thinking it was genuine. Bank tellers don’t always have time to inspect every-single-note for every-single-security feature each time a customer makes a cash deposit, so some counterfeits inevitably escape detection.
Usually the mistake is realized at the end of the day when drawers are counted, or more commonly, when another customer getting a withdrawal spots a bum note. In recent years, some of the newly redesigned $100 bills (Series of 1996 up to, but NOT including 2009) were counterfeited with such a high degree of skill that the Treasury readily admits bad notes remain in circulation. As various counterfeiters eventually get caught, the Secret Service immediately advises commercial banks about what to look for as they continue to accept currency from the public.
Furthermore, counterfeiting United States currency is a Federal Crime. Anyone suspected of knowingly passing bad money will be referred to law enforcement, including the FBI and Secret Service.
If you suspect you were given counterfeit notes, always compare them to known authentic examples of United States currency. You can also compare the suspicious note to examples provided at www.moneyfactory.gov, the government’s official website detailing all the latest security features employed in authentic notes.
Here’s another fake “error” or “rarity” that actually sold on eBay.com. We don’t know whether or not the seller meant to deceive anyone on purpose, or if he/she was simply selling a collectible they themselves mistakenly thought was genuine.
We won’t even bother returning to debate our defense lawyer. No small size Legal Tender/United States Notes were EVER produced with orange seals. Also, Dr. Bart’s compendium of paper money errors reports no incidence of authentic orange seals on small size Legal Tender Notes.
It’s possible this note was chemically altered, bleached, or left in the sun too long; in which case the vibrant blood-red color of an authentic Legal Tender Treasury Seal might become legitimately faded. Someone with good intentions thought it was rare and sold it as a unique collectible, with no intent to defraud anyone.
Rule of thumb on any “Error” Note when in doubt: Do NOT buy an unslabbed or “raw” note that claims to have an unauthenticated error. Only purchase notes that have been authenticated and graded by a respected grading company like PMG or PCGS. The graders at both agencies are adept at detecting real errors from fake ones. Also, get a copy of Dr. Bart’s United States Paper Money Errors: A Comprehensive Catalog and Price Guide to compare any raw note you see for sale to known records of true Bureau of Engraving and Printing errors.
The odds of one random note having a wrong seal color are remote considering the presses are churning out currency around the clock and constantly checked for quality control. True errors that leave the Treasury are eventually discovered and made common knowledge among paper money collectors and banking officials. Be skeptical of anyone offering a “new error discovery” unless they are a reputable dealer.