Old money, art and history lure collectors

On the block are 19th-century plates used to print bank notes and stock certificates

November 08, 2006|By Brent Jones | Brent Jones,sun reporter

Tony Terranova, a professional coin collector from New York City, will have a chance to diversify his collection when more than 100 hand-engraved steel plates go on the auction block today.

The plates belonged to the American Bank Note Co. and were used to print stock certificates, bank notes and engravings of presidents. Private and professional collectors began gathering at the Pier 5 Hotel at the Inner Harbor yesterday for the two-day auction. Thousands of coins, some valued at as much as $600,000, were auctioned the first day; the plates are to be auctioned today.

Usually, coins are Terranova's primary interest, but he is after the plates this time. "They're very beautiful," he said. "It's a beautiful example of crafting art." The pricier plates are expected to sell for $6,000 apiece, said Bruce Hagan, an American currency specialist who works for Stack's Rarities LLC, the company running the auction.

Nearly 30 currency plates are expected to be up for bid. Most of the printing plates have remained unused for more than 150 years. The federal government allowed banks to print money through the middle of the 19th century, Hagan said.

The Pennsylvania-based American Bank Note, formed in 1858 after the consolidation of seven major engraving and printing firms, printed money for banks around the country, officials from Stack's said.

The company inherited plates used by its former competitors that had been accumulating since the turn of the 20th century, including ones used to print tickets to political conventions and the dedication of the base of the Statue of Liberty.

During the "Free Banking Era" of the mid-19th century, "American banking was a hodgepodge of state chartered banks with no federal regulation or uniformity in operating laws," according to a history of paper currency published by the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco.

By 1860, an estimated 8,000 different state banks issued notes in denominations ranging from a half-cent to $20,000.

In 1865, the federal government imposed a 10 percent tax on state bank notes, which took the profit out of issuing them and essentially taxed them out of existence, according to the Federal Reserve's historical account.

"It [the tax] ended an era of banks being in charge of their artwork," Hagan noted.

The 200 tons of plates remained in the archives of American Bank Note until last year. John Albanese of Archival Collectibles of Far Hills, N.J., bought them and has been selling them since August.

Christine Karstedt, president of Stack's, said the plates have become popular auction items. Many of the plates, including one from Valley Bank of Maryland, in Hagerstown, hold a great deal of regional significance, which draws collectors of all backgrounds, she said.

Valley Bank's 9-inch-by-14-inch copper plate shows $5, $10 and $20 denominations. Unlike today's currency, there are no portraits of presidents on the plate. Stack's officials expect this plate to sell for about $2,500.

"There are always people that love to acquire significant items from their locale," Karstedt said. "This Hagerstown one could go to a resident. Or maybe the mayor will think it should go to the local town hall."

Terranova said he is interested in bidding on plates that are not related to banks and currency. He said he does not find them as visually pleasing as plates depicting people and scenes. He said he has purchased about 15 plates at three other auctions.

"I like allegorical visages of Miss Liberty," Terranova said. "America personifies Miss Liberty as a woman. And that's what I like. But there is a whole section of people that want those currency plates. ... It's a ground-floor opportunity. They're going to be selling these things for the next five, six years."

brent.jones@baltsun.com

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