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First $5 bill discovered; NH firm to auction it

By David Tirrell-Wysocki
Associated Press Writer

When bank executive William Spooner Huntington signed the firest $5 bill issued by the U.S. Treasury in 1863, he could not have known it would spark excitement among collectors 138 years later and help his great-granddaughter make retirement plans.

The bill is making its first public appearance since Huntington authorized it during the Civil War at the First National Bank of Washington and put it in an envelope. It stayed there as it changed hands for four generations.

"It's as nice as the day it was printed," said David Sundman, president of Littleton Coin Co. of New Hampshire, which is auctioning off the bill in March in Chicago.

They kept it in the envelope, and the family, if not collectors, certainly wanted to keep this family heirloom in good shape," he said.

Sundman learned of the note when its owner, who lives on the West Coast and wants to remain anonymous, read an Associated Press article last month about the discovery of a Civil War $20 gold certificate in New England that may be worth more than $250,000. She contacted Sundman and learned her bill may be worth more than $75,000.

Both are on display through Saturday at a major coin and currency exhibit in Orlando, Fla. They will be auctioned the first week of March at the Chicago Paper Money Exposition, one of the largest paper money events in the world.

"I saw the article in my local paper after a friend who knew I had a bill called it to my attention," the owner said. "This little bell went off and I said 'Why don't you call and talk about yours?'"

She said three years ago, a currrency dealer offered her $25,000 for the bill and a note from Abraham Lincoln, written to help Huntington get a job at the Department of the Treasury. She showed it to another dealer who told her it might be worth double that.

And when she contacted Sundman, she learned it could be worth more than three times as much.

"I was pretty excited," said the woman, a school teacher. "I kind of had an idea it was worth more."

Growing up in Concord, N.H., she said she used to hear stories about the bill and her great-grandfather's Civil War banking days. The currency, still in the envelope with a handwritten note from the banker was passed down to her in 1988.

The bill has illustrations depicting Christopher Columbus arriving in the New World. It carries the serial number 1.

"This was the first one," Sundman said. "To a real collector, this is really exciting. It is the first national bank note. It's like a dream note."

Sundman said the story in December about the $20 certificate set off a worldwide treasure hunt of sorts. He and the AP have received inquiries from around the United States and as far away as England.

A person in New Jersey had two rare notes Sundman bought for "low five figures."