Russian Rarities Offer Glimpse of Techniques
By William Barrett
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.