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What Is The Value Of A Monetary Note From San Francisco Anti-Hero Emperor Norton?

Don Kagin
An authentic Emperor Norton monetary note.

Hey Area is where we find answers to questions you ask. San Francisco artist Jeremy Fish wanted to know: What is the value today of an authentic monetary note from the famous San Francisco anti-hero Emperor Norton?

Emperor Norton is one of the most iconic oddballs of Gold Rush-era San Francisco. One day in 1859, after losing his fortune and probably his mind, Norton walked into the offices of The San Francisco Daily Evening Bulletin and handed the editor a proclamation declaring himself the Emperor of the United States. And the crazy thing is: the newspaper printed it. Even crazier: a lot of people went along with it. He even printed his own paper money, which — for a time — was accepted as legal tender by many local restaurants and watering holes.

Recently, I met up with rare coin and currency expert Don Kagin at his office in Tiburon. He has one of the few remaining notes with Emperor Norton’s face on it. “Today, there's a couple of dozen of these in existence and they all have dates,” says Kagin. “We know when he issued those.” The note reads in big letters: The Imperial Government of Norton I. It also has a portrait of Emperor Norton on it and a variation of the seal of California.

“Probably the best one is what we call a very fine condition,” says Kagin, “and they're worth about anywhere from $10,000 to $25,000, maybe $30,000 for the best.”

Joshua Norton may be the first citizen of San Francisco to declare himself Emperor, but given the booms and busts of the Bay Area, he probably won’t be the last.