The great thing about the currency hobby: every note you own – no matter how common or rare – is “unique” in the most technical sense of the word.
Unlike coins, each piece of paper money denominated $1 or higher has design features, serial numbers, and plate numbers that make them different from every other note in circulation. Otherwise, discerning counterfeit currency from genuine would be a logistical nightmare. If your bank teller hands you ten $20 bills having the SAME series year, signatures, plate numbers, AND serial numbers, something fishy is going on, or else you’re on Candid Camera. 🙂
That said, the degree to which a note is considered “rare” is largely based on the number of other notes known to exist identified by the same Friedberg catalog number – the standard numbering system of the United States Paper Money hobby (exceptions to this rule include the Criswell Confederate Currency numbering system).
For example, Friedberg 1935-B – a 1976 $2 Federal Reserve Note from the New York Federal Reserve District – is considered common because thousands of examples are known to exist. Since there is an ample supply of these notes, their value is modest in comparison to Fr. 1700 – a 1933 $10 Silver Certificate – with a few dozen known examples. An uncirculated 1976 $2 Federal Reserve Note might cost you $5, whereas an uncirculated 1933 $10 Silver Certificate will cost upwards of $2,000.
Serious collectors further define value and rarity based on a note’s grade. Suppose there are 1000 known examples of 1976 $2 notes, of which 990 are in Fine condition. The 10 that are better than Fine – just 1% all known notes in our example – would be worth substantially more, because they represent a tiny fraction of the overall population. As a general rule, notes in an immaculate state of preservation are much rarer for the simple reason that the B.E.P. issued them to circulate publicly until their natural end-of-life; not to be hidden away inside family Bibles, bank vaults, or cigar boxes.
Another way to think about it: more than 95% of the population thinks paper money is for “spending”, NOT collecting. Therefore, most notes will never be properly stored as an investment for the future, but instead folded into a wallet, stuck in a billfold, or sent through the laundry.
There are a few exceptions to the “higher grade = higher value” axiom, most notably any known National Gold Bank Notes from the late 1800s. These notes are so rare that one in Very Good or Fine condition could be worth thousands, simply because it is the only surviving example on record. In this case, grade is not as important as population count.
Those exceptions aside, dedicated paper money enthusiasts are left to debate the merits of “top pop” and “PPQ”/”EPQ” notes (PCGS “Premium Paper Quality”/PMG “Exceptional Paper Quality” – meant to indicate a note’s paper and original impression has NOT been altered from its original state of production with pressing, pinholes, tears, paper pulls, staple holes, rust, handwriting, or repairs) .
This constant debate evolves mostly from the subjective nature of third party grading policies. Even though leading grading companies like PCGS and PMG meticulously examine notes following a standard (almost scientific) procedure, there is inevitably room for human error and opinion. PCGS might assign one note a grade of Gem Uncirculated 65 PPQ, but someone else might think it is only Uncirculated 63 (with no PPQ designation). One collector might prefer the eye appeal of PCGS 58 About New over a PCGS Very Choice New 64 as a matter of personal taste.
The term “top pop” usually means the HIGHEST graded note known to exist as identified by its Friedberg number. Purists will say the “top pop” note is the one note (or notes tied) with the highest numerical grade. Others might consider “top pop” to be any note in Gem Unc 65 PPQ grade or higher, even if several examples with grades of 66, 67, or 68 are also known. Using a looser definition of “top pop” allows room for disagreements in the highest extremes of note numerical grades, often coming down to mere millimeters when considering the centering of a note’s impression, or degree to which the outermost regions of a note’s corner tips are perfectly cut to a 90 degree angle (or not).
Chasing the best graded notes is much like drinking fine wine: it’s a battle for prestige and exception opposed to buying a note that’s affordable and enjoyable to own at Very Fine 25. One camp believes top pop is like chasing windmills, especially given the subjective nature of the note grading process. Another camp believes top pop is the pursuit of the ultimate trophy note: a combination of rarity and perfect state of preservation that is NOT likely to be outdone. As a result, top pop notes tend to be the most popular investments for those that have a good bankroll and an eye for outstanding pieces of collectible currency.
Every collector has his or her own taste, preferences, and financial constraints which might limit their ability to get the “finest known” example of a Friedberg number. They might not feel investing in a high grade, high-end rarity is worthwhile or affordable.
The price points for high grade notes tell a different story: dealers know full well that rare notes with a grade of 65 or higher traditionally command higher prices, and a quick look through any major dealer’s inventory will reflect this trend. Whether or not the note actually goes for a “top price” comes down to the dealer’s pricing flexibility and demand for the particular Friedberg number.
If you want the very best, you’re going to have to pay more. There are very few “bargain” notes with extremely high grades. You might be able to buy a new Toyota for $20,000 but a new Maserati will run north of $200,000. Again, it comes down to taste and budget.
As a general rule, don’t always jump at a note with a Superb Gem Unc EPQ grade of 67, 68, or 69 without researching it first. It can be tempting to click “Buy It Now” on Ebay for what you think is a top pop note, only to learn later that 4 or 5 notes of the same catalog number exist with the same exact grade as yours. Now your great purchase isn’t as rare as you originally thought. Consult PCGS or PMG population numbers FIRST before opening your checkbook: it might take the fun out of a spontaneous purchase, but it will help avoid buyer’s remorse after your 7 day inspection period has expired.