Big Dollars For a Silver Certificate

William L. Marcy
Source: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division
William L. Marcy

Would you spend $2.6 million to get a certificate for $1,000?

A rare, century–old silver certificate bearing the likeness of one William L. Marcy was just sold to an anonymous buyer for that lofty sum, which auctioneers at Stack's Bowers Galleries say is a record.

"Only two exist of this type, the other being a treasure in the National Numismatic Collection in the Smithsonian Institution," Stack's Bowers said in announcing the sale.

The certificate was issued in 1891, at a time when silver miners, Western mining companies, and some Western banks were objecting to the government's decision to essentially adopt a gold standard.

(View more: 80th Anniversary of the Gold Standard)

A law passed in 1878 required the government to buy several million dollars' worth of silver bullion and mint it into coins. Because the silver was so heavy, the government decided to issue certificates like this one could be exchanged for the same face value in silver dollar coins.

The government no longer prints silver certificates, and it hasn't exchanged existing ones for silver since the 1960s. But even now, those that remain outstanding are still legal tender and can be spent, according to the federal Bureau of Engraving and Printing.

As for how Mr. Marcy came to grace the certificate, he was a 19th century politician and statesman who served as secretary of war, secretary of state, a senator, and governor of New York. He is also noted for saying, during a congressional debate over a nomination, "to the victor belong the spoils."

No doubt that's what a certain silver certificate seller is thinking.

_ By CNBC's Kelley Holland.