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Russian Rarities Offer Glimpse of Techniques
By William Barrett

The recent Ponterio auction in Chicago, the first fully under their new banner with Bowers & Merena, contained a spectacular grouping of Russian notes, these principally the collection of J.S. Morgan.

Lots 1053 through 1057 of the Morgan collection comprised a series (three, five, 10, 25, and 50 roubles) of the newly redesigned Russian State notes of 1843.

The morning after the sale, I sat down with David Leong, now of the bank note department of Spectrum Currency, and Matthew "Matt" Quinn of Bowers & Merena to take a closer look at the five notes while they were still together.

It was at this time that we noticed the similarities in the engraving and printing, and determined to research further.

Regrettably, before we could have them scanned at 2200 d.p.i., the buyer of the three, 10, and 25 rouble notes collected his winnings, thus only the five roubles, purchased by an Internet bidder, and the 50 roubles, purchased by myself, were available. Accordingly a fuller study of the elements of those three denominations and their possible interchangeability will have to wait.

This series replaced the short-lived Commercy Banky 1840-1843 issues introduced in 1840. The Commercy Banky notes in turn had replaced the 1818-1840 notes of an earlier and simpler style.

Security printers always need to keep abreast of technology, in particular counterfeiting technology. These lovely new 1843 notes accordingly incorporated the best available.

As most notes of this period that exist in collectors' hands are in relatively heavily used condition, the specimen 1843 series of the J.S. Morgan collection provided an opportunity to study state of the art Russian security printing technology in pristine form, and equally importantly, to study examples of unquestioned authenticity.

From an initial examination we deduced that the faces of the notes are printed from engraved plates, whether of copper or steel I do not know, though I presume steel.

The backs seem to be comprised of two elements, one being a center block comprising the coat of arms, flanked at left and right by panels of printing type.

In this case at least the same center block appears to have been used both on the five rouble and the 50 rouble specimens, and I presume accordingly on all of the issued five roubles and 50 roubles.

In our view the engraving seems identical. This would open the question as to whether the coat of arms element on both the five and the 50 were created from the same master, or alternatively that there was only one master, and that like contemporary book illustration, this element was interchangeable into the printing blocks for the backs of more than one denomination?

If it was the latter method, then having all five and 50 rouble notes printed with at least one element identical would provide additional security to the series. However, that single block would suffer disproportionate wear, and if it needed to be replaced, the uniformity of printing that is essential to defeat counterfeiters might be lost.

The left and right text portions of the back of the note are set or cast in type, several fonts in different styles and sizes being employed to force any forger to work in not just one font element but many.

Each note in this series of specimen 1843 notes was originally sent out with a covering letter attached to each denomination: Quite possibly the denominations were introduced one by one as they were prepared, rather than all at one time.

Accordingly the five rouble came with a letter that is reproduced here. This letter introduces the new five rouble note and discusses its technological aspects.

The 50 rouble in the Ponterio sale did not have a letter. It was undoubtedly originally sent out with one but letter and note have at some point in the past become separated. This is rather easy to do. In my own collection a note that came with a letter might have the letter stored separately, and then, depending on the circumstances, the letter might later not be readily matched up with the note.

The letter shown here has been folded, presumably for transportation. Accordingly, most of the notes in the Ponterio series were folded as well, to protect them on their journey. The vertical fold on the five and 50 Roubles illustrated here can be easily seen in the illustrations.

Along with the full illustrations of the five and 50 roubles, I have selected a sample area of the coat of arms on the backs, in fact the upper right portion of the eagle's wings, to show design elements in enlarged form.

It should be readily visible that the same printing element appears to have been used in both notes. As best I can determine the slight differences between the two may have been caused by variances in inking of the plate, rather than in the engraving.

The little burr between the third and the fourth feathers, for example, is a good place to begin a comparison.

It should be noted that each piece is printed on relatively low quality non-bank note paper. This is a security precaution. The notes are fully printed; false serials and signatures could easily be added, with only the "SPECIMEN" overstamp (and the different paper) serve to prevent the note from being misappropriated and passed into circulation.

Undoubtedly much has been written on this topic already in Russia, and I welcome researchers to present their information.


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