Humble US coin from 1913 likely to fetch millions

29 January 2013 - 20:50 By Sapa-AP
The 1913 Liberty Head nickel. File photo
The 1913 Liberty Head nickel. File photo

A humble U.S. coin with a storied past is headed to auction, and bidding is expected to top $2 million.

The 1913 Liberty Head nickel is one of only five known to exist. It was surreptitiously and illegally cast, discovered in a car wreck that killed its owner, declared a fake, forgotten in a closet for decades and then found to be the real thing.

"Basically a coin with a story and a rarity will trump everything else," said Douglas Mudd, curator of the American Numismatic Association Money Museum, which has held the coin for most of the past 10 years.

The coin is likely to attract lofty bids that only a handful have achieved at auction. A 1933 double eagle, a $20 gold coin, holds the U.S. record: $8 million.

"This is a trophy item that sort of transcends the hobby," said Todd Imhof, executive vice president of the Heritage auction house. "It's an interesting part of American history, and there are collectors who look for something like this."

Four siblings who inherited the coin will split the money equally.

The nickel was one of five struck at the Philadelphia mint in late 1912, the final year of its issue, but with the year 1913 cast on its face.

Mudd said a mint worker, Samuel W. Brown, is suspected of producing the coin and altering the die to add the bogus date.

The existence of the coins wasn't known until Brown offered them for sale in 1920, a date late enough that he could not be prosecuted. The five remained together under various owners until the set was broken up in 1942.

A collector, George O. Walton, purchased one of the coins in the 1940s for a reported $3,750. The coin was with him when he was killed in a car crash in 1962, and was found among hundreds of coins scattered at the crash site.

Walton's sister, Melva Givens, was given the 1913 Liberty nickel after experts declared the coin a fake. She put the coin in an envelope and stuck it in a closet, where it stayed for 30 years until her death in 1992.

Ryan Givens, who is executor for his mother's estate, said a family attorney had heard of the famous 1913 Liberty nickels and asked to see it. "He looked at it and he told me he'd give me $5,000 for it right there," he said, declining an offer he could not accept without his siblings' approval.

Finally, they brought the coin to the 2003 American Numismatic Association World's Fair of Money, where the four surviving 1913 Liberty nickels were being exhibited. A team of experts concluded it was the long-missing fifth coin.