Banknote Collecting: A Brief Introduction to Notaphily

World bank notes World bank notes (Image via Wikimedia Commons)

Money makes the world go around. It’s the reason we go to work, it helps us go on vacation, and can afford us the nicer material things in life that we might crave. For some people this is new clothes, a smart watch, a car. For notaphiles, it’s the money itself.

Money has value depending on its denomination, but money is also highly collectible. And there’s a great deal more to notaphily (the study and collection of paper currency and banknotes) than merely chasing the largest numbers.

Often notes become desirable because of the topic featured, the time period, country of origin, material, currency, and sometimes because they are just plain beautiful.

And while the internet is filled with lists of the highest prices reached at auction for individual rare banknotes, in this article we are going to discuss the factors that influence notaphily enthusiasts.

Factors That Make Banknotes Valuable

  • Rarity

5 Livres Syriennes note circa 1948.

5 Livres Syriennes note circa 1948. Sold for £550 via London Coin Auction (June 2017).

Certain banknotes are veritable pieces of art. This is certainly the case with the striking 1948 5 livres bank notefrom Syria. Hole punched to denote its current cancellation, this rare note is printed in vivid colors in an ornate design that’s surely deserving of a higher denomination.

  • Design

A focus on ornate design extends to many currencies. The American dollar is not known in its present guise for its delicacy of design (apart from detailing around the border), but the rare 1875 $5 note from the Merchants National Bank Series includes a scene that could have been transported from a renaissance fresco.

  • Historical Significance

Despite its age, the 1875 $5 note wasn’t the first instance of paper money entering circulation in the US. One of its predecessors was the 1863 fractional 5 cent note. This came about because at the beginning of the Civil War, people started hoarding coins for their precious metal content. They became increasingly rare and in their absence, the government intervened and issued paper coins. These notes did not feature serial numbers, but in an attempt to thwart potential counterfeiters the designs became increasingly intricate, much to the delight of collectors.

  • Condition

A beautifully preserved note is always the holy grail for collectors. In Syria, treating the humble bank note as a canvas wasn’t exclusive to the 5 Livres. In 1939, the 1 Livre Syrienne note was given a similar vibrancy thanks to ornate yellow and blue columns and archways that beautifully frame a countryside scene, which has remained vibrant throughout 80 plus years of foxing and use.

Getting Started with Banknote Collecting

Choosing Your Focus

You don’t need to break the bank when it comes to notaphily. Read up on the history of banknotes by country, review what’s been sold recently at auction (easily done online) and make a list of the qualities you feel drawn to. Are you a fan of a unique serial number? Or are you keen to categorize your collection pictorially? Famous faces, beautiful landscapes and even transport could be a place to start. You may also want to focus on holograms, unique watermarks, or stick to a country or preferred historical period.

Acquiring Banknotes

Once you’ve learned as much as possible about the type of notes you want to buy, look for accredited dealers that specialize in your area of interest. You can find local dealers in your area online through PMG (Paper Money Guaranty) and even filter by banknote specialty. For US money specifically, check out the US Mint Catalog, which showcases an extensive collection of bills and notes for collectors. Otherwise, familiarize yourself with reputable online auction houses and enjoy the search.

Handling and Storing Your Collection

To preserve your precious notes pristinely, consider investing in a banknote album. Ideally you want the clear sheets inside to be free from acid and chemical softener, so your collection is completely protected. Steer clear of direct sunlight or any kind of moisture when handling your notes, and make sure your hands are clean.


Is Paper Money Worth Collecting?

It’s certainly worth embarking on a banknote collection, for a multitude of reasons. It all comes back to how you personally see value within the crisp notes you hope to preserve and keep. It could be that your motivation is to get enjoyment out of having ornate note designs at your fingertips (in a carefully stored environment of course), or the thrill in banknote collecting could be more focused on seeing a rise in value; finding a historic, rare note in mint condition, whether by good luck or sheer hard graft.

What Are the Most Valuable Banknotes to Collect?

When it comes to value aligned with scarcity, it would be difficult not to single out a note like the stunning Ooi-Long one yuan/dollar note, issued in 1909 by the Kwangsi Bank in China and with only three known surviving examples. The most expensive banknote sold to date was the USA 1890 Grand Watermelon treasury note, fetching $3.29 million at auction in 2014.

Obtaining a banknote like the Ooi-Long is unlikely, but if you want to stick to a general rule of thumb when it comes to value, hunt out rare banknotes in excellent condition (particularly if they were produced before 1970) as they’re only going to go up in value year on year.

How Can I Determine if a Banknote is Rare?

Following the numbers trail is one of the most reliable ways to determine whether your currency is rare. Pay careful attention to the serial numbers on collectible notes and the way they’re sequenced – no two banknotes will ever be the same. The first banknote of any series (000001) is one to pinpoint, as are banknotes with a low series of less than 100.

Take the 1988 $1,000 Bank of Canada note, which was recalled by banks, and features a portrait of the late Queen Elizabeth II and a stylised bold purple design. A low serial number and a short print run would see the value of this and similarly recalled notes skyrocket.

Bank of Canada $1,000 note circa 1988.

Bank of Canada $1,000 note circa 1988. Sold for CAD1,200 via Auction Network (August 2016)

Written by Alexis Culotta View all posts by this author →

Alexis holds a PhD in art history and has enjoyed professional roles across gallery, museum, and academic settings. Thanks to these myriad experiences, Alexis holds a wealth of knowledge across the fields of fine and decorative arts and enjoys every opportunity to share these insights along with the stories of these makers and objects with Invaluable collectors.