Gold certificate

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A $10,000 1934 gold certificate depicting Salmon P. Chase. Image courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution.

A gold certificate in general is a certificate of ownership that gold owners hold instead of storing the actual gold. It has both a historic meaning as a U.S. paper currency (1863–1933) and a current meaning as a way to invest in gold.

Banks may issue gold certificates for gold that is allocated (non-fungible) or unallocated (fungible or pooled). Unallocated gold certificates are a form of fractional-reserve banking and do not guarantee an equal exchange for metal in the event of a run on the issuing bank's gold on deposit.[1] Allocated gold certificates should be correlated with specific numbered bars, although it is difficult to determine whether a bank is improperly allocating a single bar to more than one party.[2]

Historic U.S. gold certificates (1863–1933)

The gold certificate was used from 1863 to 1933 in the United States as a form of paper currency. Each certificate gave its holder title to a corresponding amount of gold coin at the statutory rate of $20.67 per troy ounce established by the Coinage Act of 1834. Therefore, this type of paper currency was intended to represent actual gold coinage. In 1933 the practice of redeeming these notes for gold coins was ended by the U.S. government and until 1964 it was actually illegal to possess these notes. (In 1964 these restrictions were lifted, primarily to allow collectors to own examples legally; however the issue technically converted to standard legal tender with no connection to gold.)

After the gold recall in 1933, gold certificates were withdrawn from circulation. As noted above, it was illegal to own them. That fact, and public fear that the notes would be devalued and made obsolete, resulted in the majority of circulating notes being retired. In general, the notes are scarce and valuable, especially examples in "new" condition.

The early history of United States gold certificates is somewhat hazy. They were authorized under the Act of 3 March 1863, but unlike the United States Notes also authorized, they apparently were not printed until 1865. They did not have a series date, and were hand-dated upon issue. "Issue" meant that the government took in the equivalent value in gold, and the first several series of gold certificates promised to pay the amount only to the depositor, who was explicitly identified on the certificate itself. The first issue featured a vignette of an eagle uniformly across all denominations. Several later issues (series 1870, 1871, and 1875) featured various portraits of historical figures. The reverse sides were either blank or featured abstract designs. The only exception was the $20 of 1865, which had a picture of a $20 gold coin.

From 1862 to 1879, United States Notes were legal tender and the dominant paper currency but were not convertible at face value into gold and traded at a discount. However some transactions, such as customs duties and interest on the federal debt, were required to be made in gold. Thus the early gold certificates were acceptable in some transactions where United States Notes were not, but were not used in general circulation due to their premium value. After 1879, the government was willing to redeem United States Notes at face value in gold, bringing the United States Notes into parity with gold certificates, making the latter also a candidate for general circulation.

The Series of 1882 was the first series that was payable to the bearer; it was transferable and anyone could redeem it for the equivalent in gold. This was the case with all gold certificate series from that point on, with the exception of 1888, 1900, and 1934. The series of 1888 and 1900 were issued to specific depositors, as before. The series of 1882 had the same portraits as the series of 1875, but a different back design, featuring a series of eagles, as well as complex border work.

Gold certificates, along with all other U.S. currency, were made in two sizes—a larger size from 1865 to 1928, and a smaller size from 1928 to 1934. The backs of all large-sized notes and also the small-sized notes of the Series of 1934 were orange, resulting in the nickname "goldbacks". The backs of the Series of 1928 bills were green, and identical to the corresponding denomination of the more familiar Federal Reserve Notes, including the usual buildings on the $10 through $100 designs and the less-known abstract designs of denominations $500 and up. With the 1934 issue, the promise to pay was amended with the phrase "as authorized by law", as redemption was now restricted to only certain entities. The phrase "in gold coin" was changed to "in gold" as the physical amount of gold represented would vary with changes in the government price. Both large and small size gold certificates feature a gold treasury seal on the obverse, just as U.S. Notes feature a red seal, silver certificates (except World War II Hawaii and North Africa notes) a blue seal, and Federal Reserve Notes a green seal.

Another interesting note is the Series of 1900. Along with the $5,000 and $10,000 of the Series of 1888, all 1900 bills ($10,000 denomination only) have been redeemed, and no longer have legal tender status. Most were destroyed, with the exception of a number of 1900 $10,000 bills that were in a box in a post office near the U.S. Treasury in Washington, D.C. There was a fire on 13 December 1935, and employees threw burning boxes out into the street. The box of canceled high-denomination currency burst open. Much to everyone's dismay, they were worthless. There are several hundred outstanding, and their ownership is technically illegal, as they are stolen property. However, due to their lack of intrinsic value, the government has not prosecuted any owners, citing more important concerns. They carry a collector value in the numismatic market and, as noted in Bowers and Sundermans' The 100 Greatest American Currency Notes, the only United States notes that can be purchased for less than their face value. This is the only example of "circulating" U.S. currency that is not an obligation of the government, and thus not redeemable by a Federal Reserve Bank. The note bears the portrait of Andrew Jackson and has no printed design on its reverse side.


Series and varieties

Series and varieties of large-size gold certificates[3]
Series Value Features/varieties

[nb 1]

$20, $100
$500, $1,000
Notes from this first issue are extremely rare in lower ($20 and $100) denominations. A single $1,000 and $5,000 are reported to exist in a government collection, and an issued $500 or $10,000 has never been seen.[5] In addition to the two engraved signatures customary on United States banknotes (the Register of the Treasury and Treasurer of the United States), the earlier issues of Gold certificates (i.e., 1865, 1870, 1875, and some 1882) included a third signature of one of the Assistant Treasurers of the United States (in New York or Washington, D.C.).[6] Known as a countersigned or triple-signature note, this feature existed for all Series prior to 1882 (and the first printing of the Series 1882).
1870–75 $100, $500
Series 1870 notes introduced portraits to gold certificates. Both Series of 1870 and Series of 1875 are countersigned notes. Between the two series, the $100 is extremely rare, the $500, $1,000, and $10,000 are unique (in government collections), and the $5,000 is unknown.[5]
1882 $20, $50
$100, $500
The Act of 12 July 1882 authorized denominations “not less than $20”.[7]
1888 $5,000
Series 1888 notes were intended for bank use to balance accounts without having to transport large volumes of gold bullion or currency.[8] They have all been redeemed.[9]
1900 $10,000
1905 $20
1906 $20
1907 $10
1913 $50
1922 $10, $20
$50, $100
$500, $1,000

Complete United States Gold Certificate type set


Large-size United States Gold Certificates
Value Issue Series Fr. Image Portrait Signature & seal varieties
20$20 1st 1865 Fr.1166b Image pending Vignettes of eagle with shield 1166b – Colby and Spinner – small red
100$100 1st 1865 Fr.1166c $100 Gold Certificate, Series 1865, Fr.1166c, with a vignette of an eagle and shield (left) and justice (bottom center). Vignette of eagle with shield 1166c – Colby and Spinner – small red
500$500 1st 1865 Fr.1166d
$500 Gold Certificate, Series 1865, Fr.1166d, with a vignette of an eagle and shield (left) and justice (bottom center). Vignette of eagle with shield 1166d – Colby and Spinner – small red
1000$1,000 1st 1865 Fr.1166e
$1,000 Gold Certificate, Series 1865, Fr.1166e, with a vignette of an eagle and shield (left) and justice (bottom center). Vignettes of eagle with shield, and justice with scales. 1166e – Colby and Spinner – small red
5000$5,000 1st 1865 Fr.1166f
200px Vignettes of eagle with shield and female 1166f – Colby and Spinner – small red
10000$10,000 1st 1865 Fr.1166g
$10,000 Gold Certificate, Series 1865, Fr.1166g, with a vignette of an eagle and shield (left) and justice (bottom center). Vignettes of eagle with shield 1166g – Colby and Spinner – small red
100$100 2nd & 3rd 1870–75 Fr.1166h $100 Gold Certificate, Series 1875, Fr.1166h, depicting Thomas Hart Benton Thomas Hart Benton 1166h – xxx and xxx – large red (1870)
1166m – Allison and New – large red (1875)
500$500 2nd & 3rd 1870–75 Fr.1166i $500 Gold Certificate, Series 1870, Fr.1166i, depicting Abraham Lincoln Abraham Lincoln 1166i – Allison and Tuttle – large red (1870)
1166n – Allison and New – large red (1875)
1000$1,000 2nd & 3rd 1870–75 Fr.1166j
$1,000 Gold Certificate, Series 1875, Fr.1166j, depicting Alexander Hamilton Alexander Hamilton 1166j – xxx and xxx – large red (1870)
1166o – Allison and New – large red (1875)
5000$5,000 2nd & 3rd 1870–75 Fr.1166k
200px James Madison 1166k – Allison and Gilfillan – large red
10000$10,000 2nd & 3rd 1870–75 Fr.1166l
200px Andrew Jackson 1166l – xxx and xxx – large red (1870)
1166q – Allison and Wyman – large red (1875)
10$10 7th 1907 Fr.1172 $10 Gold Certificate, Series 1907, Fr.1172, depicting Michael Hillegas Michael Hillegas
10$10 9th 1922 Fr.1173 $10 Gold Certificate, Series 1922, Fr.1173, depicting Michael Hillegas Michael Hillegas 1173 – Speelman and White – Gold

1173a – Speelman and White – Gold, small serial numbers

20$20 4th 1882 Fr.1175a $20 Gold Certificate, Series 1882, Fr.1175a, depicting James Garfield James Garfield
20$20 4th 1882 Fr.1177 200px James Garfield
20$20 7th 1905 Fr.1180 200px George Washington 1179 – Lyons and Roberts – small red

1180 – Lyons and Treat – small red

20$20 7th 1906 Fr.1185 200px George Washington
20$20 9th 1922 Fr.1187 $20 Gold Certificate, Series 1922, Fr.1187, depicting George Washington George Washington 1187 – Speelman and White – Gold
50$50 4th 1882 Fr.1189a 200px Silas Wright
50$50 4th 1882 Fr.1195 200px Silas Wright
50$50 9th 1913 Fr.1199 200px Ulysses Grant 1198 – Parker and Burke – Gold

1199 – Teehee and Burke – Gold

50$50 9th 1922 Fr.1200a $50 Gold Certificate, Series 1922, Fr.1200a, depicting Ulysses Grant Ulysses Grant 1200 – Speelman and White – Gold

1200a – Speelman and White – Gold, small serial numbers

100$100 4th 1882 Fr.1202 $100 Gold Certificate, Series 1882, Fr.1202, depicting Thomas Hart Benton Thomas Hart Benton
100$100 4th 1882 Fr.1207 200px Thomas Hart Benton
100$100 9th 1922 Fr.1215 200px Thomas Hart Benton 1215 – Speelman and White – small red
500$500 4th 1882 Fr.1216a 200px Abraham Lincoln
500$500 9th 1922 Fr.1217 200px Abraham Lincoln 1217 – Speelman and White – small red
1000$1,000 4th 1882 Fr.1218a $1,000 Gold Certificate, Series 1882, Fr.1218a, depicting Alexander Hamilton Alexander Hamilton
1000$1,000 4th 1882 Fr.1218g 200px Alexander Hamilton
1000$1,000 8th 1907 Fr.1219 $1,000 Gold Certificate, Series 1907, Fr.1219, depicting Alexander Hamilton Alexander Hamilton
1000$1,000 9th 1922 Fr.1220 $1,000 Gold Certificate, Series 1922, Fr.1220, depicting Alexander Hamilton Alexander Hamilton 1220 – Speelman and White – Gold
5000$5,000 4th 1882 Fr.1221a
200px James Madison
5000$5,000 5th 1888 Fr.1222a
$5,000 Gold Certificate, Series 1888, Fr.1222a, depicting James Madison James Madison 1222 – Rosecrans and Hyatt – large red

1222a – Rosecrans and Nebecker – small red

10000$10,000 4th 1882 Fr.1223a
200px Andrew Jackson

10000$10,000 5th 1888 Fr.1224a
$10,000 Gold Certificate, Series 1888, Fr.1224a, depicting Andrew Jackson Andrew Jackson 1224 – Rosecrans and Hyatt – large red

1224a – Rosecrans and Nebecker – small red

10000$10,000 6th 1900[nb 2] Fr.1225 200px Andrew Jackson


Small-size United States Gold Certificates
Value Series Fr Image Portrait Signature & seal varieties
10$10 19281928 Fr.2400 $10 Gold Certificate, Series 1928, Fr.2400, depicting Alexander Hamilton Alexander Hamilton 2400 – Woods and Mellon – gold

2401 – Woods and Mellon (1928A) – gold.

20$20 19281928 Fr.2402 $20 Gold Certificate, Series 1928, Fr.2402, depicting Andrew Jackson Andrew Jackson 2402 – Woods and Mellon – gold

2403 – Woods and Mills (1928A) – gold.

50$50 19281928 Fr.2404 $50 Gold Certificate, Series 1928, Fr.2404, depicting Ulysses Grant Ulysses Grant 2404 – Woods and Mellon – gold
100$100 19281928 Fr.2405 $100 Gold Certificate, Series 1928, Fr.2405, depicting Benjamin Franklin Benjamin Franklin 2405 – Woods and Mellon – gold.
500$500 19281928 Fr.2407 $500 Gold Certificate, Series 1928, Fr.2407, depicting William McKinley William McKinley 2407 – Woods and Mellon – gold.
1000$1,000 19281928 Fr.2408 $1,000 Gold Certificate, Series 1928, Fr.2408, depicting Grover Cleveland Grover Cleveland 2408 – Woods and Mellon – gold.
5000$5,000 19281928 Fr.2410 200px James Madison 2410 – Woods and Mellon – gold.
10000$10,000 19281928 Fr.2411 200px Salmon P. Chase 2411 – Woods and Mellon – gold.
100$100 19341934 Fr.2406 $100 Gold Certificate, Series 1934, Fr.2406, depicting Benjamin Franklin Benjamin Franklin 2406 – Julian and Morgenthau – gold.
1000$1,000 19341934 Fr.2409 $1,000 Gold Certificate, Series 1934, Fr.2409, depicting Grover Cleveland Grover Cleveland 2409 – Julian and Morgenthau – gold.
10000$10,000 19341934 Fr.2412 $10,000 Gold Certificate, Series 1934, Fr.2412, depicting Salmon P. Chase Salmon P. Chase 2412 – Julian and Morgenthau – gold.
100000$100,000 19341934 Fr.2413 $100,000 Gold Certificate, Series 1934, Fr.2413, depicting Woodrow Wilson Woodrow Wilson 2413 – Julian and Morgenthau – gold.

Modern usage by the Federal Reserve System

Since the time of the gold recall legislation the United States Treasury has issued gold certificates to the Federal Reserve Banks. The Secretary of the Treasury is authorized to "prescribe the form and denominations of the certificates".[11] Originally, this was the purpose of the Series of 1934 Certificates which were issued only to the banks and never to the public. However, since the 1960s most of the paper certificates have been destroyed,[12] and the currently prescribed form of the "certificates" issued to the Federal Reserve is an electronic book entry account between the Federal Reserve and the Treasury.[13] The electronic book entry system also allows for the various regional Federal Reserve Banks to exchange certificate balances among themselves.[14]

As of December 2013 the Federal Reserve reported[15] holding $11.037 billion face value of these certificates. The Treasury backs these certificates by holding an equivalent amount of gold at the statutory exchange rate of $42 2/9 per troy ounce of gold, though the Federal Reserve does not have the right to exchange the certificates for gold. As the certificates are denominated in dollars rather than in a set weight of gold, any change in the statutory exchange rate towards the (much higher) market rate would result in a windfall accounting gain for the Treasury.

Series catalogue

This is a chart of some of the series of gold certificates printed. Each entry includes: series year, general description, and printing figures if available.

Small-size gold certificates

Small-size gold certificates
Series Denominations Signatures Printing Figure
1928 $10 W. O. WoodsAndrew W. Mellon 33,356,000
1928 $20 W. O. Woods – Andrew W. Mellon 67,704,000
1928 $50 W. O. Woods – Andrew W. Mellon 5,520,000
1928 $100 W. O. Woods – Andrew W. Mellon 3,240,000
1928A $100 W. O. Woods – Ogden L. Mills 120,000*
1934 $100 W. A. JulianHenry Morgenthau, Jr. 120,000*
1928 $500 W. O. Woods – Andrew W. Mellon 420,000
1928 $1,000 W. O. Woods – Andrew W. Mellon 288,000
1934 $1,000 W. A. Julian – Henry Morgenthau, Jr. 84,000*
1928 $5,000 W. O. Woods – Andrew W. Mellon 24,000
1928 $10,000 W. O. Woods – Andrew W. Mellon 48,000
1934 $10,000 W. A. Julian – Henry Morgenthau, Jr. 36,000*
1934 $100,000 W. A. Julian – Henry Morgenthau, Jr. 42,000*
  • Notes: All Series 1928A gold certificates were consigned to destruction and never released; none[16] are known to exist. All Series 1934 gold certificates were issued only to banks and were not available to the public. The Series 1934 gold certificates are also distinguished from the previous gold certificates in their gold clause, which adds the phrase "as authorized by law" to denote that these notes cannot be legally held by private individuals, and by their distinctive orange reverses. Only a few museum specimens of these Series 1934 gold certificates survive today. The $100,000 note is the largest denomination currency ever issued by the United States.

See also


  1. Notes issued under a given Series (e.g., Series 1882, Series 1907) are, in some cases, released over a period of years, as reflected in the Friedberg number signature and seal varieties. For example, based on dates of the signature combinations,[4] the Series 1907 $10 gold certificate was first issued with the signature combination of Vernon and Treat (in office together from 1906 to 1909) and last issued with the Teehee and Burke signatures (in office together from 1915 to 1919). Therefore, a Series 1907 note could have been issued as late as 1919.
  2. There was a massive fire in a new Post Office building at the corner of 12th and Pennsylvania, in Washington D.C., on Friday, December 13, 1935. At the time, part of the 6th floor was being used for Treasury Department storage. Fire Fighters threw many boxes of documents out of the windows and into the streets below. One such box contained almost every surviving piece of the series 1900 Gold Certificates. Passersby quickly grabbed them up off the street, although all of the notes had been previously redeemed and canceled. Treasury records indicate that there are no outstanding redeemable notes of this series.[10]


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