WOLFEBORO, N.H. (AP) – Ornate currency produced by banks around the country became obsolete virtually overnight when the federal government started printing money in quantity in the 1860s. So did the intricate printing plates used to make it.

Now, hundreds of the hand-engraved metal plates, many hidden in storage for more than 150 years, are going on the auction block.

“For historical significance, it’s hard to overstate it,” said Douglas Mudd, curator of exhibitions at the American Numismatic Association Money Museum in Colorado Springs, Colo. “These are unique items. These are the plates that were used to produce notes and paper documents that built this country.”

Before they go up for auction, the plates are being examined and catalogued by a New Hampshire firm that specializes in rare currency and coins, American Numismatic Rarities.

It sometimes needs to do detective work.

“When they come to us, it doesn’t say “Hey, this was used in 1841 to print this.’ We have to figure it out ourselves … and when we can, sometimes we have a eureka moment,” said Q. David Bowers of American Numismatic Rarities.

The 200 tons of plates are from the archives of the American Bank Note Co., formed in New York in 1858 by the consolidation of seven major engraving and printing firms. The collection comprises about 900 plates used for printing money plus 10,000 to 20,000 of various sizes that were used for other printing jobs.

“These were hand-engraved by highly skilled artists,” Bowers said. “It would not be unusual for someone to spend weeks doing a whole scene. They wore eyepieces and had very fine tools and magnifiers and did it one line at a time.”

American Bank Note inherited plates its predecessors had been accumulating for decades, including ones used to print advertisements, letterhead stationery and stock certificates that helped fuel the country’s economic and westward expansion during the early 1800s.

The company, now based at Trevose, Pa., near Philadelphia, printed money for banks around the country until the federal government imposed a 10 percent tax on transactions involving such currency in 1866, Bowers said.

“People brought their state bank notes back to the bank and said “Give me federal money instead.’ So almost overnight, they all left circulation,” he said.

The plates were packed up and left in storage until 2004, when the collection was purchased for an undisclosed price by John Albanese of Archival Collectibles of Far Hills, N.J. He has been sending the plates to New Hampshire to be researched before selling them at a series of auctions.

The first, scheduled for Aug. 11 in Denver, will have 158 plates used to print currency and stock certificates for everything from early railroads to mining companies. They include “vignette” plates, which portray scenes of Americana or landmarks that banks and other companies used to embellish their currency, letterhead, checks or advertising.

The Denver auction also includes an engraved cylinder used to print tickets to the Pan-American Exposition of 1901 in Buffalo, N.Y., where President William McKinley was assassinated.

Future auctions will include iconic plates such as the RCA Victor dog, early ads for Campbell’s soup and invitations to events such as the 1884 dedication of the Statue of Liberty’s pedestal.

Bowers suspects the centerpiece of the auction in Denver will be a series of plates, including one for then-popular $3 bills, from the Commercial and Agricultural Bank of Galveston, Texas.

“By the time they stopped issuing state bank notes in 1866 there were only three banks – count them, three – in the whole state of Texas, whereas in New York there might have been 300,” he said.

On the Net:

Numismatic Rarities: http://www.anrcoins.com/

Archival Collectibles: http://www.archivalcollectibles.com/

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