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Courtesy Signatures, Be Careful Out There.
March 13, 2008

The term courtesy signature for banknote collectors has a special connotation. It is a bank note that has the real signature of the Secretary of the Treasury or the Treasurer of the United States, on the note above their printed signatures.

I'm sure folks have been doing it for a long time. They are known with some Secretary of the Treasury officials going back to the beginning of federal currency in the 1860s. (Actually some of the early notes have real signatures anyhow).

Often the officials had an opportunity to purchase the low serial numbers, and would then autograph them and present them to friends. This probably started in a major way with the introduction of the Large Size Federal Reserve Notes in 1917.

But what I'm showing today are two examples of the signature of Mary Ellen Withrow, Treasurer on the 1993-1999 series Federal Reserve notes.

When one has a real signature, the person signing never can really sign twice. There are subtle difference in the flourishes and the length of the signature.

Politicians since the late 1950s have had access to a machine called the autopen. It produces a signature on any document. It follows a template. Thus at the start and stop of words, there is often a larger dot of ink than that formed when writing by hand. In addition, there is often waviness in the strokes of tall letters and descending letters like t's, l's and g's or y's.

If you write by mail, most often these days you will get an autopen, especially if it is from the Secretary of the Treasury. It is always best to get them in person, and thus you should also have nice new bills handy, with a pen of your choice!

Know what a real signature looks like, be careful out there.


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Recent Comments
On March 15, 2008 cvetan cvetkov said
Dear Mr. Cuhaj,
thank you for the interesting article.

However I am not very sure that the shown examples are in fact machine signed. Look for example at the W in Withrow: the curves definitely differ in length and form, the dot's position also. I am not familiar with how exactly the autopen works, can two autopen signatures be that different?

cvetan cvetkov

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About the Author
George Cuhaj has been with the Krause Publications numismatic team since 1994. He is editor of the various editions of the Standard Catalog of World Coins and the Standard Catalog of World Paper Money. Prior to joining KP, Cuhaj was employed by the American Numismatic Society and Stack's Rare Coins, both of New York City. He is a Fellow in both the Royal Numismatic Society and the American Numismatic Society. He also is a life member and past board member of the International Bank Note Society. Cuhaj was elected an Allied Professional Member of the National Sculpture Society and has had his medallic work exhibited internationally.

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