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Noteworthy Notes: The Unique in Private Hands Series 1875 $500 New York, NY National Bank Note

By Cory Williams - December 7, 2020

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PCGS Banknote recently had the opportunity to grade the Series 1875 $500 New York, NY National Bank Note.  This unique rarity was graded VF20 with notations of Repairs and Pinholes.  But what's the story behind this most unusual note?

The National Banking Act of 1863 gave impetus to the establishment of national banks in the United States, with the goal of creating a national currency that was backed by government securities held by other banks.  From the start, the highest denominations were available to be printed for each bank, the $500 and the $1,000.  Some 100 banks decided to issue $500s; that said, a mere 4,371 banknotes were ever printed of the denomination.  Of that output, a single example is known in private hands.  The plate date on the note featured here is 1876, and the inflation calculator suggests the face value of this note is equivalent to more than $12,000 today – quite the sum for someone to set aside way back when!

This banknote features beautiful artwork on each side.  Starting with the face of the note at the left we see a vignette titled "The Spirit of the Navy," with a sword-wielding female figure known as "Civilization" by the Treasury Department.  She is seen sitting on a cannon with a battleship in the background and an armed camp, in the far background is a tranquil scene of a farmhouse with a rainbow overhead.

At the right is a vignette titled "Arrival of the Sirius, 1838."  The Sirius was the first ship to arrive in New York from England entirely under steam power, an impressive feat at the time.

On the back of the note is an engraving by Frederick Grisch based on a painting by John Trumbull titled "Surrender of General Burgoyne," this depicts British General John Burgoyne surrendering to American General Horatio Gates 10 days after the Second Battle of Saratoga in 1777.  To the left of this is seen the New York State Seal, which consists of allegorical figures of Justice and Liberty, the latter supporting a shield with an eagle above.  A banner at the bottom reads "Excelsior" (Latin for "Ever upward" or "Yet higher").

This banknote was issued by Charter 29, The First National Bank of the City of New York, NY, which was one of the first banks chartered in the program – hence the low number; this bank was chartered in July 1863.  At the time George Fisher Baker was president of the bank, a position he attained in 1877, and as we can see his handwritten signature affixed to the note at the lower right.  Baker was an interesting man of immense wealth who stayed silent in public until the age of 82.  Other than his success as an American financier, he is known for providing the majority of the initial funding for Harvard Business School, as well as providing a seven-figure endowment to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, as well as gifting many other seven-figure donations to other Ivy league schools.

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