You’ve probably come across many notes with handwriting on them. Most of the time, it is graffiti, counting numbers, or doodles. In other cases, you might have a note that has been signed by various unknown parties. Some people sign their name on notes for the hell of it, while a group of people might all sign a note as a gift or memento of a special occasion. Beyond any sentimental value for the people’s signatures on the note and the memories they conjure, 99% of notes with handwriting on them are not collectible. They are often assigned lower grades than notes in a similar state of preservation because the paper has been fundamentally altered from its original state.
As with most general rules of the paper money hobby, there are exceptions. A note signed by a celebrity, former president, top athlete, or musician will usually catch the attention of collectors, even if the note itself is not considered rare without its famous signature. Many note collectors are also history buffs, and that means autographs of major figures in United States government garner the most attention.
Before proceeding any further, it’s important to define the term “courtesy autograph” correctly.
Definition – A courtesy autograph note is a genuine example of United States currency with a handwritten signature of either the Secretary of the Treasury or Treasurer of the United States inscribed above the printed signature. A note with a famous signature from someone other than the Secretary of the Treasury or Treasurer is considered an autographed note. The qualifying word “courtesy” means it bears the handwriting of someone whose signature already appears on the bill in printed form.
Signatures can appear elsewhere, but placement above the printed signature has been standard practice since the late 1800s. Most signers of United States paper money in the 20th century have offered courtesy autographed notes in bulk to friends, family, or to collectors. A courtesy autograph 1957 $1 Silver Certificate with printed signatures of Priest-Anderson with a hand signature from either individual will only value 2 – 3 times greater than the note by itself, simply because these notes are extremely common and many courtesy autographs are known to exist. On the other hand, large size notes bearing courtesy autographs from officials who only served briefly in office are much more valuable. Further, if the note itself is in Uncirculated condition and is known to be a rare type, its value goes up even more.
I have a hand signed National Bank Note, does this make it more valuable?
Not necessarily. Some National Banks printed and circulated smaller amounts of currency compared to others. A common cost saving measure was to have bank officials sign the notes by hand, or have a staff of clerks do it for them. The exception to this rule would be a National Bank Note with printed signatures AND the actual handwritten signature of the banking official elsewhere on the note. Otherwise, hand signed Nationals are nothing to get excited about unless your note is considered rare already (regardless of the signatures on it).
Let’s have a look at some of the most famous courtesy autograph notes to sell publicly.
Fr. 276 1899 $5 Silver Certificate – Napier-Thompson – PCGS 64 PPQ – Thompson Courtesy Autograph – Serial H4
This gorgeous note has the “perfect storm” of rarity: the Fr. 276 is the rarest of all 1899 $5 Silver Certificates, its condition is phenomenal, it has a remarkable H4 serial number, and it has a courtesy autograph from Carmi Thompson, Treasurer of the United States.
If $21,000 is too rich for your blood, here’s a modest courtesy autograph note that is well within the reach of most collectors. This particular note was one of the most affordable courtesy autographs listed for sale at Heritage Auctions. Most exceed $50 and usually not more than $500 unless they are exceptionally rare.
Fr. 1619 1957 $1 Silver Certificate – Priest-Anderson – Fine – Priest Courtesy Autograph
Courtesy autographs are a neat genre of USA paper money collecting, and most notes are very affordable. If you like investment grade material, there is a small pool of high-end material available, but it doesn’t surface often. In the meantime – as you delve into the world of courtesy autographs – start slow and work your way up. A note with a valuable handwritten signature always feels much more personal, because you know that the person actually handled note themselves before it found its way into your collection.
Parting advice: If you have the budget for high value courtesy autograph notes – valuations of $500 or more – we highly suggest purchasing slabbed notes only (notes that have been graded and authenticated by PMG, PCGS, or any other third party grading authority). Raw notes going for big money might be forgeries. We’re actually surprised this isn’t a rampant problem in the hobby: find an old note, fake the signature, and mark it up for a big profit. Don’t risk your hard earned money on something that could be fake. Buy authenticated notes only, from dealers with strong reputations.