I was looking through the Heritage Auction archives and stumbled on an old auction that showed a 1913 Liberty Nickel (The PR64 Olsen Specimen) selling for $3.8 million dollars back in January 2010. I did a little research and dug up this interesting history and thought I would share it with those that might not know the lore surrounding this legendary coin.
The 1913 Liberty Head Nickel is one of the most prized, publicized, and valuable coins ever produced. Only five proof specimens are known to exist.1 Facts are sketchy on the minting of the 1913 Liberty Head Nickel. It is believed that five specimens were struck at the U.S. Mint in Philadelphia sometime between December 1912 and April 1913.
The most widely-accepted theory today is a Mint employee by the name of Samuel W. Brown struck five specimens, after-hours, before the dies were destroyed. It’s clear that the coins left the mint in some sort of unauthorized manner and were kept secret until 1920.
Early in 1920, Mr. Brown began advertising to buy 1913 Liberty Nickels, which may have been done to provide a bit of “cover”. Then later that same year, he brought the five coins out of hiding and exhibited them at both the Chicago Coin Club and at the American Numismatic Association (ANA) Convention.
Sometime during the the early 1920’s Mr. Brown sold the 5 coins to August Wagner, a Philadelphia coin dealer, who then advertised the five for sale. The next buyer in line was Stephen K. Nagy, who then turned around and sold them to Wayte Raymond (the famous maker of Coin Albums), who in turn sold them to Colonel E.H.R. Green, a super-collector, in 1929.
A few years later, during the Great Depression, an enterprising coin dealer, B. Max Mehl of Fort Worth, Texas, ran thousands of nationwide ads — advertising $50 to anyone that could find and send to him a 1913 Liberty Head Nickel (even though they were never released into circulation and finding one was for all intents and purposes impossible). This sparked a national treasure hunt for the nickel that was worth $50, a huge sum of money during the Depression. Cable cars and tramways in big cities would often run behind schedule during this era because the conductor was too busy checking all the nickels they collected in fares.
In June 1936, Colonel E.H.R. Green passed away — and the set of 1913 Liberty Head nickels made a more public appearance during his estate appraisal. It’s interesting that Mr. Green had a special velvet & leather case designed for his rare Nickels, which was made with 8 nickel-sized holes, that were filled with the five Liberty Nickels and three pattern Buffalo Nickels including one in bronze.
Colonel Green’s eight coin set and custom case were eventually bought by Eric P. Newman of St. Louis, Missouri. When Eric bought the set, the leather and velvet case still contained all eight coins. The case still exists today and is still owned by the man who bought the set from the Colonel E.H.R. Green estate, Eric P Newman. The case has been pictured in Coin World and was on display at the 2003 ANA that brought together all the coins once again.
Through the 1940’s, the 1913 Liberty Head Nickel was continuing to grow in stature. When individual specimens were auctioned off from the original five that were known, they sold for what was at the time seemed like an exorbitant amount of money, as much as $4,000 each. Each time one was subsequently sold, the price got higher and the legend grew deeper. Even King Farouk of Egypt had, at various times, two different 1913 Liberty Head Nickel specimens in his world-class coin collection.
Fast forward to 1962, and another twist gets added to the story. In March of 1962, an owner of one of the 1913 Liberty Nickels, George Walton, had a mishap with his coin. Walton was driving to a coin show where he had told the promoters he was bringing a 1913 Liberty Nickel so it could be displayed. Unfortunately, Walton crashed his car and lost his life in terrible wreck while en route. A 1913 Liberty Nickel was recovered from the accident scene. That coin was sent to Stack’s in New York where it was declared to have an altered date. (It is important to know that George Walton was known to have owned an altered date specimen, along with a genuine 1913. He would sometimes display the altered date piece as genuine and get his jollys out of watching people ooh and aah over the “great rarity”.)
So for the next 40 years, from 1962 through 2002, only four genuine 1913 Liberty Head Nickels were accounted for.
Finally in 2003, the ANA organized a reunion for the four remaining known specimens of the 1913 Liberty Nickel at their annual World’s Fair of Money. To add interest they offered a $10,000 reward for anyone that could lead them to the lost fifth specimen. The Walton’s were contacted by Donn Pearlman at the ANA and requested to bring their altered date piece to the World’s Fair of Money to have it shown as part of the historical display of the 1913 Liberty Nickels. After the Walton’s arrived and their “altered date” piece was looked at — some started to think that it might actually be the missing fifth coin. So later that night, a very a hushed panel of experts was quickly brought together along with the four known genuine 1913 pieces for an examination, in less than an hour the Walton coin was determined to be genuine and the 5th genuine 1913 Liberty Head nickel was now “found”.
Over the years, the five 1913 Liberty Head Nickels ended up getting named for the owners that held them for long periods of time. The five known specimens are as follows:
- The Eliasberg Specimen, PCGS and NGC PR-66, once owned by Louis Eliasberg was sold in January 2007 by Stack’s Auction House. Current owner anonymous. Current PCGS Guide Value $4.5 Million.
- The Olsen Specimen, PCGS and NGC PR-64, named for early owner Fred Olsen, sold in Aug. 2003 for $3 million to an anonymous buyer. Later sold for $3.8 million in January 2010 by Heritage (auction mentioned at the beginning of this article). This coin was once featured on an episode of Hawaii-Five-O.
- The Norweb Specimen, named for previous owner Henry Norweb, is officially ungraded and in the permanent collection of the Smithsonian Institution.
- The Walton Specimen, officially ungraded but authenticated in 2003 by several experts, held by George Walton’s heirs. Was “semi-lost” for nearly 40 years.
- The McDermott Specimen, NGC PR-55, named for former owner (and vest-pocket coin dealer) J.V. McDermott, is currently in the ANA World of Money Collection. This last McDermott example is in rough shape for a Proof because (from what I’ve researched at least) he used to carry it around with him in his pocket with other coins to show people — and there are reports he would sometimes mail it, first class, rattling around loose in an envelope (with no insurance) to other coin collectors for them to look at — which is incredible to consider.
1 Note that a few collectors I’ve heard from feel these 5 specimens were actually circulation-strikes from a freshly polished die that have proof-like qualities, but are not true proofs. That being said, both major Third Party Graders (PCGS & NGC) certified them as proofs.