Rare Continental Currency: What Shrewd Collectors Look For

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(Image provided by West Seattle Coins)

(Image provided by West Seattle Coins)

Have you ever heard someone say, “It’s not worth a Continental!” and wondered what it was in reference to? Like many common phrases, it has its roots in our nation’s history. This particular phrase comes from a time in our past when we were still trying to establish a U.S. currency. Ironically, some of those “worthless” notes will fetch a pretty penny today. And the rarest of them are worth a fortune!

History of Continental Currency

Colonial currency was the first currency produced in the U.S. It was first issued by the Massachusetts Bay in 1690. Eventually, all thirteen colonies had their own paper bills. Most of the currencies followed Spanish Milled Dollars, which were backed by silver. British pounds were another common currency. However, the British ruled Colonial currency unlawful in 1764.

The Continental Congress began printing paper money in 1775 to fund the Revolutionary War. At the time, most currencies were backed by silver or gold. Most of the Continental currency was not. The only thing that backed this early tender was the promise of “future tax revenues.” In addition to not being backed by anything substantive, and perhaps because of this, Continental currency suffered from wild inflation. There were simply too many of these bills in circulation to prevent inflation. So that’s where the phrase “not worth a Continental” came from.

If you happen to see a paper Continental around nowadays, however, it’s a different story. Though the paper bills are some of the most affordable collector’s items from that era, many are still extremely valuable. Especially if you know what to look for.

Gold- and Silver-Backed Continental Currency Notes

While the failure of Continental currency led to the gold and silver clause being written into the U.S. Constitution, some of the Continental currency was in fact backed by silver and gold. Obviously, the gold- and silver-backed bills fared much better than the others. In fact, those gold-backed collectable bills continue to be the most valuable of the Continentals today.

Aside from the value of precious metal backing, the gold and silver paper notes had an extra feature that made them more valuable: a gorgeous and intricate marbled edge. The marbled edge was so difficult to recreate, a counterfeit detector just for the edge was created! Fun fact: Benjamin Franklin himself gifted the marbled paper to Congress.

Gold- and silver-backed Continental currency from this era is by far the most valuable paper currency of its kind. The Benjamin Franklin connection is as much or more of a selling point than the gold and silver backing. If you’re in the market for these historically significant bills, you can expect to pay at least $25,000. If the bill is in impeccable condition, you’ll pay a lot more than that.

Centennial Coins

Not officially minted by Congress, the Centennial dollar coin is an incredibly rare, and pricey coin from this era. The coin’s exact denomination isn’t known for sure, but the currency is supposed to be the U.S. dollar. The coin was minted in the pivotal year of 1776, and the Numismatic Guaranty Association describes the coins as “the first coins authorized by the nascent United States and… highly desirable among collectors today.”

This coin features a design said to be inspired by, you guessed it, Benjamin Franklin. Most of these coins were produced with pewter, which is a combination of metals mostly consisting of tin. A dozen or so other Centennial coinshave been located that are made of brass, and a few made of silver, but they are exceedingly rare. A Centennial coin is a must-have for serious Continental currency collectors.

Other Continental Currency

A lot of Continental currency from the 1770s doesn’t cost all that much compared to other currency from that time. Their relatively low price makes them a perfect fit for people just starting their collections.

West Seattle Coins specializes in gold buying and dealing in rare coins. We are a family-owned business that was established in 1979 in the West Seattle Junction. We also buy and sell gold, silver, diamonds, currency and jewelry. Visit us first for a free evaluation.


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