Counterfeit Detection: US $1 Legal Tender Note

Posted on 12/18/2018

This month's edition shows how counterfeiters can remove an overprint to create the appearance of a rare error note.

This United States 1917 Legal Tender note (Friedberg 38) has always been a favorite for US type collectors. It is colloquially known as a ‘sawhorse reverse’ because the design on the back center resembles a sawhorse. Between Fr. 38 and 38m (the m stands for mule), there are 1,148 notes reported out of an original print run of 101,176,000. Of those, only five notes are errors—with four out of the five being Fr. 38m.

How you can tell it’s a mule? By the location of the back-plate number. The number is located on the back of the note in the white space at the left end. If it’s a mule, the back-plate number will be at the 6 o’clock position (see the image below, the back-plate number is circled in red), whereas non-mule notes will have the back-plate number closer to the 4 o’clock position.

1917 US Legal Tender Note.
Click image to enlarge.

Close-up of the red circle area

This month’s article will focus on what appears to be an error note. Large size type errors are very desirable as not many have survived; in fact, less than half a percent (0.44%) of notes in the known Friedberg 38 population are errors. It’s due to the low error population that unethical individuals will attempt to make a perfectly original note look like an error note.

The note above is missing its red overprints (the serial numbers, a scalloped seal). Every note that PMG grades undergoes strict scrutiny. At first glance, everything appears to be on the up-and-up. However, let’s examine this note more closely.

Some of the best tools a grader can use are their loupe and a UV light. This note is supposed to be UV dead; in other words, there should be no UV reactions on the note, though sometimes the fibers may give off a dull glow. Under UV this note looks like:

This is not the reaction we were expecting. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the note has been tampered with, though it's interesting that there are some blank spots without UV reaction. These areas are where the serial numbers would have been. This UV reaction does mean that we need to continue to examine the note, so let’s dig in a little more.

Let’s focus on where the serial numbers should be.

There are some faint outlines of what look like possible numbers. The next image will have the areas in question circled in red. After you look at that picture, come back to this one. Can you see the outlines now?

After a closer inspection, this note isn’t looking too good. However, we need further proof one way or the other. Let’s put the note under special lighting to see if anything will show up.

Now we can see the complete trace of the serial number, and we know for sure that the serial number and seal were removed. The specks are remnants of leftover serial numbers, and the UV reaction was from whatever the deceiver used to remove the overprint.

This is what a Friedberg 38m is supposed to look like:

Identifying an alteration can be difficult to the untrained eye. Here at PMG, we have experienced graders and equipment to catch alterations. Collectors can be assured that any note encapsulated by PMG is backed by the PMG Guarantee of grade and authenticity.


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