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‘Old’ Sometimes Means ‘It’s Not Worth a Continental’

Question: We recently settled the estate of my wife’s aunt, who died at age 98 in New Jersey. The old farmhouse, which had been occupied for more than 200 years, was the repository of antiques and other artifacts beyond description. Among the items discovered were three very old bills; one of $5, one for $6 and the last for $8. At the top and bottom of each bill is printed in script “The United Colonies.”

On the sides each says Continental Currency. Each bill on the face says: “This bill entitles the bearer to receive (four, six, eight) Spanish milled dollars, or the value thereof in gold or silver, according to a Resolution of Congress” passed at (Baltimore, Feb. 26, 1777) for the $4 (Philadelphia, July 22, 1776) for the $6 and (Baltimore, Feb. 26, 1777) for the $8. The $6 bill has a serial number written in red ink and is signed in red ink by Ben Jacobs and J. Whelen. The other bills are also signed but are hard to decipher. On the reverse is artwork and the information that these bills were printed in Philadelphia by Hall & Sellers in 1776 and 1777. Do these bills have any worth?--L.S.C.

Answer: There used to be a popular expression that something wasn’t worth a Continental. The expression refers to your bills (also coins). But it’s not entirely true.

Continental currency refers to bills such as yours that were issued to finance the American Revolution. They were authorized by the Continental Congress but unsupported by cash reserves. They were based on the silver Spanish milled dollar, known as the Piece of Eight and were indeed printed by Hall & Sellers, the successors of Benjamin Franklin.

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In 1777, the Continental bills were on a par with the Piece of Eight, but by 1780 it took 40 Continental dollars to equal a Piece of Eight (hence the expression: not worth a Continental). At that point, the Continental Congress stopped printing money. In 1790, it was possible to exchange $100 in Continental Currency for $1 in interest-bearing bonds.

These bills, as you can see, are quite historical. But numerous copies have been made and it’s important to determine whether yours are genuine. The paper most likely resembles parchment and the signatures and serial numbers should differ in color from the rest of the bill. The value depends on the condition of the bills and also the signatures. Some bills were signed by signers of the Declaration of Independence and are more valuable than those with lesser-known dignitaries.

Rarity is not a factor, because about $250,000 worth of these bills were printed. Still, they are historical and highly collectible. Prices are generally in the $25-to-$100 range.

Coin News

A 50-guilder coin commemorating the 300th anniversary of William and Mary has been authorized by the Netherlands. The legal-tender silver piece celebrates the crossing of the North Sea by Prince William III of Orange and his consort Mary Stuart, and their coronation as king and queen of England. The coin (pictured), is only the fourth 50 guilder in history and depicts Queen Beatrix on the obverse in a computer-aided design. The reverse shows William and Mary as they appeared on the 5 guinea gold coin of 1691. Proof ($52.50) and uncirculated ($38.50) versions are available from the Dutch Mint’s North American Office at P.O. Box 1057, Clifton, N.J. 07014; telephone (201) 471-1441.


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