1913 Liberty Head Nickel
The 1913 Liberty Head nickel is one of the most valuable and legendary coins in American numismatics. The liberty head design was used between 1883 and 1913, when it was replaced with the Buffalo design.
There are only 5 of these coins known to exist today. They are known individually as the Eliasberg, the Olsen, the Norweb, the McDermott, and the Reynolds.
History and origin
The coin is an American five-cent piece which was produced in extremely limited quantities without the authority of the United States Mint.
The Liberty head design was used between 1883 and 1913, when it was replaced by the Indian Head (Buffalo) design.
The first official striking of nickels by the Mint in 1913 were of the Buffalo design, and the official records have no record of Liberty Head nickels produced in that year.
However, five 1913 Liberty Head Nickels were created and were first displayed at the American Numismatic Association's annual convention by the coin collector Samuel Brown. Brown had previously placed an advertisement in The Numismatist in December 1919 looking for information on these coins and offering to pay $500 for each. However, various theories abound as to where he acquired the coins: as Brown had been an employee of the Mint in 1913, many numismatic historians have concluded that he was responsible for unofficially striking the coins himself.
Other theories suggest they were created as test pieces in 1912, or created as cabinet pieces for the Mint itself. However they came into existence, all five were sold by Brown in 1924 and passed through the hands of various collectors until they reached Colonel E.H.R. Green. Green kept them in his collection until his death in 1936. His estate was then auctioned off, and all five of the 1913 Liberty Head nickels were purchased by two dealers, Eric P. Newman and B.G. Johnson. The dealers then broke up the set for the first time.
The 1913 Liberty Head Nickel was part of the hopes and dreams for something better that saw the American nation through the terrible Depression Era of the 1930s. Riding on the foundation of this hope, later coin dealers who handled the 1913 Nickels built upon the legend, enhancing and enlarging it.
Its legendary status was due in large part to the coin dealer B. Max Mehl, who used it as part of a publicity campaign to sell copies of his ‘Star Rare Coin Encyclopaedia’. He advertised across the country that he would pay $50 to anyone who found one and sent it to him, and such an offer during the Depression caused great excitement as the nation started searching through their loose change.
The five specimens
The five coins in existence are known as the Eliasberg, the Olsen, the Norweb, the McDermott, and the Reynolds.
The Eliasberg is the finest known specimen of the five 1913 Liberty Head nickels. Of the five, two have proof surfaces, and the other three were produced with standard striking techniques. The finest of the coins has been graded Proof-66 by various professional grading services, including PCGS and NGC.
This coin was purchased from Newman and Johnson by the Numismatic Gallery, a coin dealership that then sold it to famed collector Louis Eliasberg. It remained in Eliasberg's collection until after his death. In May 1996, it was sold at an auction conducted by Bowers and Merena, where it was purchased by rarities dealer Jay Parrino for $1,485,000, breaking the World Record price for a coin at that time.
When it was auctioned again in March 2001, the price rose to $1,840,000. In May 2005, Legend Numismatics purchased the Eliasberg specimen for $4,150,000. In 2007, the Eliasberg Specimen was sold to an unnamed collector in California for $5 million.
The Olsen specimen was once featured on Hawaii Five-O (in an episode called ‘The $100,000 Nickel’, aired in 1973 (7)), and is the most famous of the five. It has been graded Proof-64 by both PCGS and NGC, and was also briefly owned by Egyptian King Farouk.
It was bought by collector Fred Olsen, who then sold the coin to Farouk, but his name has remained attached to it ever since. It was purchased by World Wide Coin Investments in 1972 for $100,000, who then sold it for $200,000 to Superior Galleries in 1978. It has been resold several times, most recently by Heritage Auction Galleries in January 2010 for $3,737,500.
The Norweb specimen is currently displayed in an exhibition at The Smithsonian Institution in Washington.
In 1949 it was purchased by King Farouk to replace the Olsen specimen, which he had sold. It remained in Farouk's collection until he was deposed in 1952. Two years later his possessions were all auctioned off by the new regime, and the coin was purchased by Ambassador Henry Norweb. In 1977 he donated the specimen to the Smithsonian, where it remains to this day.
The Walton specimen was believed to have been lost for over 40 years. The collector George O. Walton purchased it from Newman and Johnson in 1945. On March 9, 1962, Walton died in a car crash whilst on his way to exhibit the Nickel at a coin show. $250,000 worth of coins was recovered from the crash site, and among them was the 1913 Liberty nickel in a custom-made holder.
However, in 1963 when his relatives later tried to sell the coins at auction the nickel was mistakenly identified as a fake. The coin remained in the possession of Walton's relatives until 2003, when the American Numismatic Association launched a nationwide hunt for the missing fifth specimen. He arranged with Bowers and Merena auction house to offer $1m to purchase the coin or as a guarantee for consigning it to one of their auctions, and a reward of $10,000 was offered if representatives of Bowers and Merena could be the first to see the long-lost specimen.
Walton’s relatives heard about the reward, and brought it to the ANA convention in Baltimore where expert authenticators from the P.C.G.S examined it and determined it to be genuine. The coin is still owned by Walton’s relatives and is on loan to the American Numismatic Association's Edward C. Rochette Money Museum in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
Also currently held by the Money Museum, the McDermott Specimen is the only one to bear circulation marks. It was once owned by collector J.V. McDermott, who often carried the coin around with him and would show it off in bars. Due to this activity, the coin lost some of its original mint lustre, becoming circulated in condition. After McDermott died the coin was sold in 1967 for US$46,000, and later donated to the ANA in 1989, where it is exhibited in the Money Museum.