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Approaching Perfection – One in a Billion?

By Philip Thomas - June 16, 2023

1899 Series $1 “Black Eagle” Silver Certificate, PCGS Superb Gem Unc 69PPQ. Courtesy of PCGS. Click image to enlarge.

The 1899 Series $1 “Black Eagle” Silver Certificate is United States’ banknotes’ crisp, colorful response to U.S. coinage’s Morgan Dollar. Both are worth a buck (in face value, that is!), both circulated around the turn of the 20th century, and both feature an American bald eagle on one of its sides. Granted, one is significantly lighter and more foldable than the other (hello, banknote!), the two iconic types unquestionably have a lot in common.

Utterly ubiquitous as they are profoundly popular, Black Eagles of some variety and condition seem to dwell within the bourse floor showcases of every banknote-carrying numismatic dealer worth their salt, oftentimes cohabitating with their actually-made-of-silver $1 counterparts (Morgan Dollars!), just inches apart. Yet they also share something else – something I like to call “The High-Grade Phenomenon.” Allow me to explain.

Despite enormous production volume (over three billion Black Eagles were printed, and over 650 million Morgan Dollars were struck in total) and massive quantities still extant and available to collectors today, very few ultra-high-grade examples exist. These include the recently certified PCGS Superb Gem Uncirculated 69PPQ specimen featured here, and such pieces are anomalous aberrations that command jaw-dropping premiums if and when they are offered for sale.

This particular note, in this particular grade, can be considered more of a Black Swan than a Black Eagle. Much like Morgan Dollars grading MS69, their certifications are unexpected and highly significant events with very far-reaching consequences. You can count the number of reputable third-party-graded 69PPQs today (of any of the 28 Friedberg varieties) and still have fingers left over to handle one of the few out there, if you are ever lucky enough to cross its path. And, also like ultra-high-grade Morgan Dollars, the feverish demand for one and the consequential spike in value can exceed 100 times that of very similar examples in the more “garden-variety” Mint State grades of say, 64, 65, or 66.

The 70-point scale created by prominent numismatist William Herbert Sheldon almost 75 years ago and used to judge coins on the basis of their circulation wear and surface quality has also been applied to the evaluation of banknotes in recent decades, with sensible accommodations being made to assess paper and ink instead of metal and strikes. The grade of 70 is reserved for pristine perfection, while the grade of 1 is saved for something barely identifiable due to an untold number of years of use and abuse in circulation. The Sheldon Scale has some Richter Scale comparability – that is, at the highest rungs of the ladder, just a single step upward equates to a substantial uptick in rarity and yields a thunderous improvement in worth, causing markets to shake and quake.

To paraphrase the PCGS Banknote Grading Standards, which are available online, a grade of 69 equates to something that comes as close to perfection as possible (without being perfect) in terms of paper and printing quality, margin size, and balance, face-to-back-plate impression registration, handling, and other eye appeal-affecting considerations. This note falls just a hair short of the full 70 points, according to a consensus of highly trained eyes here at PCGS, consistently enforcing among the most rigorous standards in all of numismatics.

This could very easily be the finest Black Eagle in existence. And based on what we know about how many were originally produced and how many can meet or exceed the astonishing quality on display here – could this note be, literally, one in a billion?

Article provided by PCGS at
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