At my request book dealer Gil Parsons kindly provided this excerpt from the anniversary catalog of his firm Parsons Books. It describes one of the rarest books on U.S. paper money, Waterman Lilly Ormsby's 1852 work on banknote engraving. Thank you!
“THE MOST DESIRABLE VOLUME EVER PUBLISHED
ON AMERICAN PAPER MONEY”
ORMSBY, Waterman Lilly A Description of the Present System of Bank
Note Engraving showing its tendency to facilitate counterfeiting: to which is added a new method of constructing bank notes to prevent forgery
New York: W.L.Ormsby and London: Willoughby & Co, 1852
This magnificent volume, produced at huge expense, is a work of Americana
of the utmost importance and of paramount rarity. Robert Wester, in his 1985
study of the work, was able to locate only five copies. Since then, no more than four copies (the number is slightly problematic as some copies seem to have been sold twice or more in the intervening years) have come to light, of which only the copy which Ormsby sought to present to President Pierce (Heritage Auctions 2004) is superior to the copy at hand.
A situation had arisen, familiar to all collectors of obsolete banknotes, whereby banknotes were assembled piecemeal from disparate design elements---often engravers did not know the ultimate fate of their borders, vignettes, and denomination markers. Thus, even legitimate elements could readily be incorporated into counterfeit notes, and the profusion of notes meant that people often lacked knowledge of what quality a genuine note ought to possess. Ormsby thus proposes and illustrates a series of innovations intended to introduce complexity and integrity into bank note production. The variety of illustrations shows his themes: the transfer press, the medal-copying machine, the ruling machine, elaborate vignettes, multiplying geometric figures by means of the engraver's lathe (an elaborate color frontispiece), medallion engraving, use of steel plates (illustrated by four bank notes), “an easy method of counterfeiting”, a portrait of Jacob Perkins (of “Perkins Plate” fame), “vignettes in common use” (2 plates) and “the new system partially illustrated” (virtuoso engraved copying of magazine plates)
Ormsby (born Hampton Connecticut 1809, died
New York 1883) must rank as one of the odder and
more intriguing characters of the art world. As this
work attests, he was an engraver of the first rank,
highly various in the application of his talent. He
studied at the National Academy of Design and
engraved for Colt Firearms, being responsible for
the Texas scene on the 1851 Colt Navy revolver.
He had been Foreman at Rawdon, Wright; was
proprietor of the New York Bank Note Company
and one of the founders of the Continental Bank
Note Company, and employed ten to twenty en-
gravers in his own establishment, doing much
work for the government. But Ormsby also did
much work for…others, himself narrowly escaping
conviction for counterfeiting (See the fascinating
account in Stephen Mihm's fine study A Nation of
Counterfeiters Harvard 2007). Ormsby thus occupied
the vague and shifting ground between the criminal and
the reformer. It is claimed that he assisted Samuel Morse and Henry Munson
in the development of the Morse alphabet; it is documented that he transmitted messages at the first showing of the telegraph.
Thus, of this great book (with which valuation by George Kolbe as heads this description there can be little dissent) the dedication: “To the Presidents and Directors of the Banking Institutions of The United States this work, aiming to set forth the greatest Perils to which their Circulation is exposed, and to furnish a Remedy, uniting Artistic Beauty, Economy, and Security against Counterfeiting is respectfully dedicated, with a reliance upon their aid in carrying into effect the important reforms it proposes by their obedient servant the Author.”
For more information on this and other numismatic literature in his inventory, contact Gil Parsons at
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