Ideas

# For serial-number hunters, \$100 isn’t just \$100

## Why some bills are worth much more than face value

When the first new hundred-dollar bills are issued to the public on Oct. 8, the new “100” in the lower right-hand corners will shine in iridescent gold—a flashy touch to foil counterfeiters and lend the new notes some style.

But for a handful of those bills, the real value will be determined by another number: the eight unassuming digits in flat dark ink less than an inch above. Those digits are the serial number, and if the digits are just right, it could make that note worth a lot more than a hundred bucks.

Currency collectors pay handsomely for what they call “fancy” serial numbers—digits that they perceive as unusual or special. In everyday life, nearly everyone treats those digits as meaningless and forgettable. But to a collector, they transform the bills into coveted specimens, as rare and beautiful as a moon rock or an exotic Amazonian butterfly.

The fancy serial number is a curious category at the intersection of money policy and obsessive-compulsive disorder. And to look into this world of collectors is to see just how avidly humans seek and appreciate patterns—and how the value we assign to these ornate little slips of paper is even more arbitrary than we might think.

Get Today in Opinion in your inbox:
Globe Opinion's must-reads, delivered to you every Sunday-Friday.

***

The US government has not always used eight digits when numbering bank notes. The serial numbers get stamped onto the bills in order, starting as low as 00000001, and go up one at a time to a maximum of 99999999 (although they don’t always reach that high). One or two capital letters precede the number to designate which Federal Reserve bank is issuing it, and to mark which numerical series, usually starting with A, the note belongs to. Another capital letter follows it.

The simplest fancy numbers are the early ones: The redesigned \$100 note with serial number 00000001 is likely to fetch \$10,000 to \$15,000, according to Dustin Johnston, director of currency for Heritage Auctions in Dallas. A \$20 bill that was first off the press in a 2009 run sold in April for \$5,581. A \$2 bill numbered 0000001 with a star — the star indicates a replacement for a misprint, but the note does not carry the same serial number as the original — sold in May 2009 for \$29,900.

The print runs don’t always start with 00000001—in the first six months of this year, only 11 “00000001” notes have been printed in any denomination, because the Bureau of Engraving and Printing has decided for technical reasons to start the print runs with a higher number. The low digits are therefore exceptionally rare this year. Notes numbering 00000002 and on up are worth less, but all the way through 00000100 they can sell for hundreds of dollars (with only a small premium for a \$100 bill over a \$20 note—since for collectors, the numbers that really count are the tiny ones).

What else qualifies a bill as “fancy” is an unpredictable set of qualities limited only by the imagination of digit-heads. One collector, a Nashville songwriter named Dave Undis, has cataloged fancy notes and presented a taxonomy on a website, coolserialnumbers.com.

In addition to the “low numbers,” which stop at 100, there are “ladders,” which have numbers in sequence, such as 12345678 or 54321098. These sell for as much as \$1,300. A “radar” (selling for \$20 to \$40) is a palindrome, such as 35299253, and “repeaters” are notes with two blocks of the same four digits, like 41884188. Undis observes subcategories of each of these, such as “super radars” (\$75 to \$100) that have all internal digits the same, like 46666664.

Undis says he got started looking for serial numbers about 30 years ago, when he found a note that had nothing but 3’s and 8’s. He is now trying to find the last nine notes in a set of all 254 serial numbers consisting solely of 1’s and 0’s (“binaries”).

“Solids” are numbers consisting of all one digit, such as 22222222. “Solids are popular with Asian collectors,” Johnston says. “Solid 8’s in particular, because the number 8 means good fortune,” and collectors will pay as much as \$3,000 for one to give to friends or relatives as framed presents. “The number 4 sounds like ‘death,’” Johnston says, “but I can’t think of anyone giving solid 4’s to an enemy.” Americans like 77777777’s, and a solid-7 \$20 sold in 2009 for \$528.

If you decide to buy stamps at the post office with your 00000001 \$100 bill, the government will treat your note just like any other. But early in the note’s life, it receives special treatment indeed. The Bureau of Engraving and Printing says it segregates the bills numbered 00000001 through 00000100 from the first group of each series’ notes, and it delivers those notes specially to the Federal Reserve Bank. A Fed spokesman says those notes are then comingled with others, so that no bank that orders currency is favored with too many low-numbered bills.

Johnston says that about half the fancy-serial-number notes he sees have been spotted and put up for auction by eagle-eyed bank employees—usually vault workers—and others who work in currency-intensive locations, such as big-box stores and foreign-exchange shops.

“Often times they’ll get a brick of money and at the end of the brick it’ll tell you what the serial number range is within that brick. So they could easily tell, at least the most keen ones can tell, from the end of the brick what serial numbers are contained within the pack.” He says most banks allow employees to pluck fancy notes from the branch’s stock and replace them with their own normal notes. (Major banks such as Citibank and Bank of America wouldn’t comment on whether they had policies about letting employees pluck notes.) Every year, a few people call in after getting a fancy note from an ATM.

And then there are notes whose serial numbers are unique in even more obscure ways. Undis is looking for a pi note, with a serial number 31415927. A certain kind of numerically obsessive patriot has collected a 07041776 bill, to honor the signing of the Declaration of Independence. (Expect to pay \$500 to \$1,000 for this, Johnston says, if it’s a \$2 bill, which shows the signing on its reverse.) The same collector also has a 09112001 bill.

Birthdays and anniversaries send people hunting for special notes with serial numbers to mark particular dates. These serial numbers, of course, look a lot like a random jumble, and are therefore harder to find up for auction, because they’re unlikely to have been plucked from the stacks. If you can find one, they’re a relative bargain, fetching only \$50 to \$100 over face value.

But for serious collectors like Dave Undis—he has about a thousand fancy notes—nothing beats the symmetry of a 35555553 or the consistency of a 22222222. Undis studied math in college, and as a numbers man, he has appreciation for the arbitrariness of an obsession with any one set of digits.

“If you look at a dollar bill, the number can just jump out at you,” Undis says. “You see something like a super radar, and your head says you just gotta have it.” To see fancy serial numbers in the filigreed setting of US currency scratches a particular kind psychological itch and gives a satisfaction that only a certain type of collector can truly understand. For them, money can buy happiness—as long as they don’t spend it.

Graeme Wood is a contributing editor at The Atlantic.

Correction: Because of reporting errors, an earlier version of this article mischaracterized the history of serial numbers on US bank notes. Serial numbers were used before 1928 and did not always have eight digits. A star after the serial number indicates a replacement for a misprint, but the note does not carry the same serial number as the original.