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PCGS Banknote Grades Finest-Known Example of One of the First Western Banknotes Ever Issued

By Joshua McMorrow-Hernandez - September 29, 2021

This 1690/91 20 Shillings “Bill of Credit” is extremely rare and was graded PCGS AU50. Click images to enlarge.

PCGS recently graded one of just six known February 3, 1690/91 20 Shillings Colonial banknotes. The “Bill of Credit” was issued by the Massachusetts Bay Colony to pay and stave off mutiny by its troops in a failed attempt to take Quebec from the French during the King William’s War against Canada. It is not only considered to be among the first banknotes authorized in North America, but also one of the very first issued in all the Americas and Europe.

Although the earliest banknotes date back before the 14th-century Ming Dynasty, this note’s printing predates any other official banknote in the Western World. Previously, almost all forms of currency had an intrinsic value of gold, silver, or copper. This note, on the other hand, represents the first official form of money with no intrinsic value whatsoever. Instead, the value of the note was backed by the Massachusetts Bay Colony, which guaranteed it and authorized its acceptance as an alternative to hard currency. The legislation also stated that these notes can be redeemed with the Treasury for the equivalent in hard currency “IF” available.

As related in the Stack’s auction of the John J. Ford collection in 2004, the origin of these Bills of Credit in North America was the result of a gross miscalculation by the leaders of an invasion of Canada and the failure to find sufficient plunder to pay off their mutinous soldiers and sailors. The combined naval and land invasion of Canada was planned for the summer of 1690. However, news of the plans reached Quebec, which received reinforcements in time to fend off the attack and the operation failed. Since it was assumed that the plunder from the success of the invasion would be sufficient to cover the debts, no advance provision had been made to pay the troops. Facing imminent mutiny of the soldiers, or worse, the colony was forced to raise money immediately.

The solution was to pass the Act of December 10, 1690, which approved the printing of Bills of Credit in the amounts of no less than five shillings and no more than five pounds. The first issue of December 10, 1690, provided for 7,000 pounds sterling but today none of those notes are known. The second issue of February 3, 1690 (1691 new style), was for 40,000 pounds. Clearly, these were a success, as they were almost all redeemed for specie, tax payments, or exchanged for other notes.

This note’s serial number is 701 and was signed by Penn Townsend, Adam Winthrop, and Tim Thornton. It is printed on thin but sturdy laid paper measuring 10.5 centimeters by 13.5 centimeters. Dimensionally, it is a "tall"-style bill of credit of the period and printed in black, on both sides, from engraved copper plates. It sports a curvilinear scroll indent at the top face and top back with the verso wider and more spaced. The rest of the back is blank.

At the lower left is the Colony seal with Native American holding an arrow and bow, mirror-image slogan “COME OVER & HELP US” within a patterned oval surrounded by motto “SIGILLVM: GVB: &: SOCS: DE MATTACHVSETS BAY. IN:NOV: ANGLIA:” (Seal of the Government of Massachusetts Bay in New England).

As with all the known examples of this 1690/91 issue, this is a "raised" denomination from a genuine note. The note was raised from a two shillings, six pence note to "Twenty Shillings" by using the engraved "Tw," and erasing the "o" then adding the rest of "enty" on the first line; on the next line, "Six Pence" was replaced with "Shillings." At the top right center, the "2 6s" was altered to "20 S" as well. In this second authorization, there were no 20 shillings notes or 10 shillings bills for that matter; the latter raised from a genuine two shillings note.

The PCGS graded AU50 note is believed to be the finest-known example.

Two other notes are impounded in the Massachusetts Historical Society and the Smithsonian Institution. Only one other specimen is known in private hands.

Another 20 shillings and 10 shillings note altered from two shillings bills were both graded VF to EF when last sold in a Smythe 1999 auction.

This note is from the F.C.C. Boyd Estate and the John J. Ford Collection and is the Eric Newman plate note, so illustrated on page 181 of the fourth edition of his book, The Early Paper Money of America.

The note is owned by Donald H. Kagin, Ph.D., owner of Kagin’s, Inc., who purchased it from the Stack’s sale of the John J. Ford Collection. “To me, this is the most historically important banknote,” declared Dr. Kagin. “Not only is it among the first of trillions of officially printed banknotes in the West, but no other note tells us more about the state of our nascent Colonial economy and the origins of official paper currency. Additionally, the intrigue of a failed military excursion necessitating the issuance of these notes and the subsequent forging by ‘raising’ the denomination provide for a great story.”

“The PCGS Banknote team was absolutely astounded by the combination of this note’s extreme age and high grade. It is nothing short of miraculous this bill exists in such extraordinary condition,” says Joe Pielago, manager of the PCGS Banknote team.

“Having a rarity come through our grading room is always an exciting event,” added PCGS Interim President Stephanie Sabin. “It’s a very important piece of numismatic history, and we are proud to have been able to authenticate, grade, and encapsulate the note in our industry-leading holder.”

For more information about submitting your banknotes to PCGS for authentication and grading, please visit

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