The Case of the Missing Zero


I have always admired the serious Paper Money researchers that delve into the Bureau of Engraving and Printing (BEP) reports. Even more so are those fortunate few that journey to the National Archives and do the ground-breaking research we read about in the pages of the SPMC Journal Paper Money. Peter Huntoon even invited me to join him in late 2001 for a visit to the National Archives, but sadly I contracted bronchitis while staying in the Marriott near Ground Zero and couldn’t make it. As a full time dealer it seems most of my research contributions are less exciting than digging through musty volumes of BEP reports and correspondence to find that numismatic nugget that solves another mystery.


For me it happens more by accident than by design such as with my purchase of many of Mike Crabb’s Federal Reserve Notes. During the task of pricing up a $20 1990 series H* in EF/AU condition I noted three differing quantities of notes printed in three respected references for Small Size FRNs. The Standard Guide to Small Size, 10th edition (SGSS) listed 1.92 million, Derek Moffitt’s wonderful website www.uspapermoney.info listed 3.2 million and Robert Azpiazu’s Collector’s Guide to Modern FRNs listed 320,000 or 0.32 million. There was nothing left to do but scratch my bald head so I started writing  emails to all the parties involved, namely, John Schwartz who is my co-author for the SGSS, Derek Moffitt and Robert Azpiazu.


Robert kindly directed me to the specific June 1992 BEP report, which you can access on his First City Currency website. Sure enough, 320,000 is the listed number so why then was uspapermoney.info off by a factor of 10? Derek then sent me this image of a corrected BEP report that originally had 320,000 as the number crossed out with other notations such as ‘per Ernie’ along with this well written email which sums up the entire mystery, plus a few BEP pointers from this era:


“Okay, this turns out to be an interesting case....


I checked my stack of old BEP reports, and the June 1992 report (see attached) has a bunch of handwritten corrections by Doug Murray, from whom I obtained copies of these reports years ago.  These corrections are labeled “per Ernie 7-13-92”, but I have no idea who Ernie was.  I'm including Doug Murray on this email in case he can shed any additional light on what's going on here.


I'm confident that the original ending serial of H00320000* is wrong.  It wasn't until several years later that the BEP began to print partial star runs that way.  Under the numbering conventions that were in use in 1992, this run would have ended at H03200000* no matter how many notes were actually printed.  Since Ernie's correction gets this right, I'm inclined to believe his total of 3,200,000 notes as well.


I don't have any source that would back up the 1,920,000 notes listed in the book.  (Does anyone know where that number originated?)  The listing of 1,920,000 notes ending at H03200000* is at least plausible for a star run of this era, so it might be correct if it turns out to come from a source more reliable than Ernie.


What we really need is some serial/plate data from this run, to pin down what might actually have been printed...and unfortunately I haven't done much recording of data from notes of this era.  What are the serial number and plate position of the Crabb note that started the discussion?




(BEP Report Image)



As Derek received these BEP reports from another noted researcher, Doug Murray, we required Doug’s input to properly attribute the corrections. The “Ernie” attribution was cleared up by the email below from Doug:



Ernie was my contact person at the BEP back when I received the monthly reports for PMCM.  If I had a question about something, we discussed it on the phone.  I can only say that I went with what he said over what the report said.  I doubt the other people receiving the reports ever got theirs corrected.  I hope this helps.



(Image of $20 1990 H*)


I  sent the scan above to Derek who once again summed it up well in his reply:


“Actually, I think this one note pretty well pins down what's going on.


When printing partial star runs in this era, the BEP started at sheet number 100,000, just as if printing a full run, and simply stopped before finishing the whole run.  But this note is from sheet number 6,449, which means that this print run had no fewer than 93,552 sheets.  That makes it almost surely a full run; at any rate, it definitely excludes the possibilities of 1,920,000 notes (60,000 sheets) or 320,000 notes (10,000 sheets).


Left unexplained is why these 1990 $20 H..* notes are so scarce...but they're hardly the only block that's substantially tougher than the printage totals would indicate. 




So the Case of the Missing Zero (or was it just a misplaced decimal?) is solved, but  another major mystery or two remain. My email to all the helpful parties involved in solving this mystery ends with my unproven theory:


“Thanks to everyone for their input. This was a good result on a concerted effort in short order. May all our mysteries be solved with collaborative efforts in the future. It is rare that we can solve these little mysteries so quickly and with John's approval we will only have to change our number printed in the coming edition of SGSS. Well that and the price no doubt should be higher.


It is very interesting that there were major corrections for two star printings, H* and D* blocks, that were erroneously reported at 10% of the actual printing on this copy of the BEP report. But that one is 'correctly' listed in the SGSS and Robert's FRN 63-09 at 3.2 mil. I can't help but wonder why. Thank you Doug and Derek for all the help and concise explanations. Not being of the collector/researcher bent in the past this digging into BEP reports is certainly interesting.


The reader should feel free to weigh in on why these contemporary issues have so many sleepers or "secret/unknown" modern rarities, specifically or in general. I have no theory other than the pool of collectors was so small in the 60s thru to the early 90s in FRNs that the small network of earnest collectors and dealers just didn't have the reach or resources to find or save all the notes we maybe should have. A pretty general theory but it is the only one I have to offer at this stage of the mystery.


Rectangular Regards,