Bank on the unusual at Sidney Museum’s latest exhibit

Display of rare Canadian bank notes runs to the end of June.

A Dominion Bank 1902 four dollar bill.

For as long as North America has had paper money, there have been con men and counterfeiters waiting to make a quick buck of their own.

And since paper money was first introduced in the United States in the early 1800s (and which came later to this country), Canadians have had a knack for the knock-offs.

The newest exhibit at the Sidney Museum takes a look at some of the legal and criminal activity that follows the printing of bank notes throughout the world. There’s a specific focus on Canadian paper money — with a look at how counterfeiters have tried to duplicate it since day one — and tour guide and museum volunteer Peter Wainwright says there are plenty of unusual bills on display.

His tour typically lasts 45 minutes and starts with the monetary underworld.

“Canada actually excelled at printing money,” he says, noting that unfortunately, it was U.S. money.

Wainwright said the U.S. was the first in North America to make paper money. This was in the early 1800s and he said there were no laws in Canada preventing counterfeiting. Entire families, he said, would have a business printing fake U.S. dollars, which they would sell to Americans — for less than face value of the real deal.

“It was a big deal and Canadians became quite good at it.”

By the time Canadian banks started printing money (yes, banks — they did it long before the government took over), Wainwright said there was a pool of counterfeiters just waiting.

Some of the funny money was easy to spot. In once case, he explained, a $5 bill went into circulation from the Bank of Montreal. This was in 1858.

“However, the Bank of Montreal didn’t print any notes in 1858.”

There’s a sample of that bill at the Museum — one of a few fakes on display.

From the time bank notes were issued to today, banks and governments have been trying their best to stay ahead of the counterfeiters. Wainwright said that in 1917 there were so many fake $100 bills in circulation that the Bank of Canada had to withdraw the real ones as no one would accept them. This has repeated itself throughout history, Wainwright explained, even to the early 2000s when Canada realized their Journey series of bills could be duplicated by simple inkjet printers. By 2005, better countermeasures were put in place and the government began quietly collecting both the real and fake bills from their initial run, and started destroying them.

Wainwright said 85 per cent of those bills have been destroyed — making the real ones still out there quite rare to collectors.

For counterfeiters to con men and Wainwright said in the early days of paper money, banks could print their own bills, under fairly strict rules. Some banks turned into what was known as a wildcat bank — where they would print more money than they could possibly ever redeem against their own capital. In some cases, these wildcat banks would make notes that resembled more legitimate institutions.

“They made nice-looking notes. They wanted people to trust it and accept it. It was a way for them to make a huge amount of money, at essentially no cost.”

Chartered banks — including companies like the Merchants Bank that had a branch in Sidney, to the Molson Bank (yes, the brewing company) continued to print their own bank notes until 1945. That’s when the Bank of Canada took over the sole responsibility for printing money in this country. To this day, old notes from charter banks will still be honoured by the government, but they’ll be destroyed afterwards.

Wainwright said it would be crazy to actually do that, for many of the older bills are collectables and are worth a lot more than their face value.

Take the old Canadian $2 bill — paper money before it became the toonie. Wainwright said that certain ones with the right combination (which in fact was an error only revealed about five years ago) of serial numbers and signatures from governors of the Bank of Canada, are worth significantly more than $2.

One, he said, was auctioned off for $11,000.

The Museum exhibit of 150 different bank notes is a mostly private collection of rare and unusual money.

They cover most of the time period from the first printings in Canada to the late 2000s. Tour guides, like Wainwright, can also talk about the evolution to Canada’s current polymer bills.

There are notes with portraits of bank officials and royalty — and even semi-nudes based on Greek artwork that probably would not see the backs of modern money in this country.

There are even tricks to the eyes, such as the Devil’s Face — the play of shadows created by an engraver that seems to look like the devil’s face in the hair of Queen Elizabeth’s portrait. Finding those, Wainwright said, is rare and to collectors would be an excellent find.

The artwork on many of the bills is exquisite and show the lengths to which banks would go to try to make their money immune to counterfeiting.

But as some Canadian keep proving, said Wainwright, that’s easier said than done. He added it was estimated that at one time, there were more fake $50 and $100 bills in circulation in Canada than there were the real things.

And today, there are no $1,000 bills out there. Wainwright said the last time one was issued by the Bank of Canada was 2000.

“They are immediately destroyed now when the Bank gets one,” he said. “The only really significant users of them were drug dealers and organized crime.”

The Sidney Museum’s bank note exhibition runs until the end of June. The displays are locked down and cameras are watching everything.

Wainwright said they don’t feel there’s a significant risk to having the display there, as each bill is recorded. Selling them to anyone would simply set off alarm bells, he said.

Museum volunteers offer tours on Saturdays, Sundays and holidays at 11. a.m. and 2 p.m. Self-guided tours are also available during the Museum’s open hours, between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. every day. Admission is by donation. For more, visit sidneymuseum.ca.