HomeUS CoinsClassic US Coins: The 1913 Liberty Nickel Through the Years

Classic US Coins: The 1913 Liberty Nickel Through the Years


By Eric Brothers for CoinWeek …..

There are several theories associated with the creation of the 1913 Liberty (V) nickel. One tells us that the Liberty Head nickel bearing that date was produced–unauthorized by the United States Mint–by Mint employee Samuel W. Brown or someone else on his behalf. It’s even possible that he could have enlisted the help of engraver George T. Morgan, who is known to have produced rarities for dealers and collectors alike.

At any rate, a total of five specimens were taken from the Mint and kept by Brown.

sambrownBut in the December 1919 issue of The Numismatist, he offered $500 in cash for a 1913 Liberty nickel “In proof condition, if possible”. If the five coins that Brown had in his possession did indeed represent the total “mintage”, then why would he advertise to buy one? Many believe he was trying to drum up interest in the rarity in order to sell the coins for higher prices, but he could also have been creating an alibi for himself when people inevitably asked how Brown, a mint employee, ended up with so many of them.

Another theory, however, is provided to us by Lee F. Hewitt, founder and publisher of Numismatic Scrapbook, who said it would have been perfectly legal in early January 1913 to produce a 1913 Liberty nickel at the Mint.

Hewitt tells us that all one had to do was exchange another date of a five-cent piece. The standard design in early 1913 for the nickel was indeed the Liberty head; in fact, dies had been prepared for the 1913 issue. Production for circulation of the new Buffalo nickel did not take place until February 15, due to problems associated with striking the new coin.

Additionally, Q. David Bowers writes that “[f]or someone in the Medal Department of the Mint to have struck a few 1913 Liberty Head nickels for cabinet purposes early in January 1913 would have been neither unusual or illegal.”

Early Owners of Famed Nickels

colgreennickelsThe year 1920 saw Brown attend the American Numismatic Association’s (ANA) annual convention in Detroit, where he displayed all five coins.

In an online article for the Liberty Nickel Collector Society, Brian Schneider pulled this quote from the book The Complete Guide to Shield and Liberty Nickels (1995):

It is intriguing — and possibly instructive — to note that 1920, the year when Brown announced his ‘discovery,’ marked the expiration of the seven-year statute of limitations for prosecuting anyone who might have removed the coins from the Mint in 1913.

In January of 1924, Philadelphia coin dealer August Wagner advertised the five 1913 V nickels for sale. They were bought by Stephen K. Nagy, who sold them to Wayte Raymond. He sold them to super-collector “Colonel” E.H.R. Green, who once owned the original 100-piece sheet of the 1918 24-cent air mail stamps with the inverted Curtiss JN-4 biplane (among other things).

After Green died in 1936, the coins were appraised in 1937 by F.C.C. Boyd of New York and sold in 1942 through B.G. Johnson. Then Eric P. Newman of St. Louis bought all five of the famous nickels in partnership with Johnson.

Modern Pedigree Period

Since 1943, each of the five famous nickels has traveled far and wide with their numerous owners. Each coin and its pedigree is presented below in the order in which they were struck, according to research by John Dannreuther.

On the night of July 30, 2003, Dannreuther was a member of the six-person authentication team that studied all five 1913 Liberty nickels. His specific job was to compare the reverse details upon each coin.

It appears that the reverse die used to strike the nickels wasn’t fully situated in the coin press. Therefore each coin had slightly weaker details on the reverse and, because of that, Dannreuther was able to figure out the order in which each coin was produced. He determined the order of mintage by studying the bottom of the wreath, which includes two ears of corn and a ribbon bow.

Dannreuther’s conclusion was that the specimens were produced in this order: Smithsonian, Olsen, Eliasberg, Walton and McDermott. But it was not a given that the Walton specimen would be there that night.

Famed Nickel Lost and Found

George Owen Walton was a quiet and secretive man who worked as an estate appraiser for banks. An avid collector of coins, he also collected rare books and documents, guns and ammo, watches, stamps and ivory. He had bought one of the 1913 Liberty nickels in 1945 for $3,750. Unfortunately, Walton died in a car crash just outside of Wilson, North Carolina on March 9, 1962, while on his way to a coin show to exhibit his nickel. The coin was in his possession at the time.

After Walton’s death, it was inaccurately identified as having an altered date, and the coin sat in a family closet until July 2003, when the American Numismatic Association (ANA) arranged to have the four-known pieces on exhibit at the ANA Convention in Baltimore. Donn Pearlman, a public relations consultant and former ANA governor, launched a publicity campaign to get the fifth nickel to the Baltimore show. The PR man arranged for the Bowers and Merena auction house to offer at least $1 million to either buy it or guarantee to consign it to one of their public auctions.

After hearing about the reward, the heirs of Walton brought the coin to Baltimore, where a team of PCGS graders determined it to be genuine. It sold at auction in April 2013 for $3,172,500.

Owners of 1913 Liberty Head Nickels

1913 Nickel Owners: Emery May Holden Norweb (top left), Aubrey and Adeline Bebee (top right), King Farouk (bottom left), and J.V. McDermott (bottom right)

The Norweb-Smithsonian Specimen Pedigree PR60

  1. Eric P. Newman and B.G. Johnson (4/22/1943);
  2. F.C.C. Boyd (1944);
  3. Numismatic Gallery (1944);
  4. King Farouk (1952);
  5. Government of Egypt (Sotheby’s, 2/1954), lot 1695;
  6. Abe Kosoff and Sol Kaplan (1954);
  7. Emery May Holden Norweb (1978);
  8. Smithsonian Institution

The Olsen-Hawn Specimen Pedigree PR64 NGC

  1. Eric P. Newman and B.G. Johnson (3/1943);
  2. James F. Kelly (1943);
  3. Fred E. Olsen;
  4. B. Max Mehl (11/1944), lot 1551;
  5. King Farouk;
  6. Numismatic Fine Arts (5/1946), lot 1058, unsold;
  7. King Farouk;
  8. B. Max Mehl (6/1947), lot 2798;
  9. Edwin Hydeman (Abe Kosoff, 3/1961), lot 280, unsold;
  10. Edwin Hydeman (1972);
  11. World Wide Coin Investments;
  12. World Wide Coin Investments and Bowers and Ruddy Galleries;
  13. World Wide Coin Investments;
  14. Robert L. Hughes Enterprises (1977);
  15. Superior Galleries (1977);
  16. Dr. Jerry Buss (Superior Galleries, 1/1985), lot 366;
  17. Reed Hawn (Stack’s, 10/1993), lot 245;
  18. Spectrum Numismatics;
  19. Nevada Investor (7/2002);
  20. Bruce Morelan and Legend Numismatics (2004);
  21. John Albanese and Blanchard & Co., Inc.;
  22. private collection
  23. Sold by Stack’s Bowers (2021)

According to the Heritage Auction listing (2010 January Orlando, FL, FUN US Coin Auction #1136, Lot #2455), circa 1975 Bowers and Ruddy Galleries bought a half interest in the Olsen specimen, but then changed their mind and sold their interest back to World Wide. Continental Coin Corporation is occasionally included in the pedigree of this coin after World Wide Coin Investments. Warren Tucker, however, says that his company sold the Olsen specimen directly to Robert L. Hughes.

The Eliasberg Specimen Pedigree PR66 PCGS

  1. Eric P. Newman (11/2/1948);
  2. Numismatic Gallery (12/16/1948);
  3. Louis E. Eliasberg, Sr. (1976);
  4. Eliasberg Estate (Bowers and Merena, 5/1996), lot 807;
  5. Jay Parrino;
  6. Superior (3/2001), lot 728;
  7. Dwight Manley (2003);
  8. Edward C. Lee (2005);
  9. Legend Numismatics (2005);
  10. Legend Collection (Bruce Morelan);
  11. Stack’s (1/2007), lot 1599;
  12. Jerry Forsythe
  13. Bruce Morelan / Legend Numismatics (2021)

The Walton Specimen Pedigree PR62 (Certified PCGS Secure PR63 on April 25, 2013)

  1. Eric P. Newman and B.G. Johnson (3/1943);
  2. James F. Kelly (1943);
  3. Dr. Conway Anderson Bolt (1945);
  4. George O. Walton (1962);
  5. Melva W. Givens (1992);
  6. Givens Estate
  7. Larry Lee from Heritage Auctions for $3,172,500 (2013)
  8. Martin Burns from Larry Lee (2018)

The McDermott-ANA Specimen Pedigree PR55 NGC

  1. Eric P. Newman and B.G. Johnson (3/1943);
  2. James F. Kelly (1943);
  3. J.V. McDermott (1966);
  4. Elizabeth McDermott;
  5. Paramount (8/1967), lot 2241;
  6. Aubrey and Adeline Bebee (1989);
  7. American Numismatic Association

Auction Appearances Over the Years

  • B. Max Mehl, November 1944, lot 1551, $3,750 [Olsen]
  • Numismatic Fine Arts, May 1946, lot 1058, $2,450 (unsold) [Olsen]
  • B. Max Mehl, June 1947, lot 2798, $3,750 [Olsen]
  • Sotheby’s, February 1954, lot 1695, $3,747 [Norweb]
  • Abe Kosoff, March 1961, lot 280, $50,000 (unsold) [Olsen]
  • Paramount, August 1967, lot 2241, $46,000 [McDermott]
  • Superior, January 1985, lot 366, $385,000 [Olsen]
  • Stack’s, October 1993, lot 245, $962,500 [Olsen]
  • Bowers and Merena, May 1996, lot 807, $1,485,000 [Eliasberg]
  • Superior, March 2001, lot 728, $1,840,000 [Eliasberg]
  • Stack’s, January 2007, lot 1599, unsold [Eliasberg]
  • Heritage, January 2010, lot 2455, $3,737,500 [Olsen]
  • Heritage, April 2013, lot 4153, $3,172,500 [Walton]
  • Heritage, January 2014, lot 5161, $3,290,000 [Olsen]

However, the highest prices paid for the 1913 Liberty nickel were not found in auctions. They were realized via private sales. In 2005, the Eliasberg specimen, graded PR66 by PCGS, was sold by Ed Lee, President of Lee Certified Coins, Ltd. of Merrimack, NH, to Legend Numismatics of Lincroft, New Jersey and Bruce Morelan of Washington state for $4.15 million. The transaction was brokered by John Albanese. But a few years later, in 2007, it was sold by Legend Numismatics and Morelan to a private collector in Southern California for $5 million. That deal was arranged by Ronald J. Gillio, a Santa Barbara, California-based coin and jewelry dealer.

The King of 20th-Century Coins

The 1913 Liberty nickel has surged in price over the years and had a lot of publicity surrounding it, especially when the fifth example was brought out of hiding and was brought to Baltimore in 2003. Its fame grew in leaps and bounds every time it broke a new price record.

The 1913 Liberty nickel was given the top position in the third edition of Jeff Garrett and Ron Guth’s book 100 Greatest U.S. Coins (2008). The authors write:

Twenty years ago, if you asked any collector or dealer to name the three most valuable American coins, the response would most likely have been the following: 1804 Silver Dollar, 1894-S Dime, and 1913 Liberty Head Nickel. Today the 1913 Liberty Head nickel has taken the lead, gaining the top position in the 100 greatest U.S. coins.

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Q. David Bowers. Pedigree of Five Known 1913 Liberty Nickels (http://www.pcgs.com/News/Pedigree-Of-Five-Known-1913-Liberty-Nickels). Accessed August 1, 2016.

Heritage Auctions. 1913 5C Liberty PR64 NGC. 2010 January Orlando, FL FUN US Coin Auction #1136 (Lot #2455). http://coins.ha.com/itm/proof-liberty-nickels/1913-5c-liberty-pr64-ngc/a/1136-2455.s. Accessed August 1, 2016.

PCGS-Certified Walton 1913 Liberty Head Nickel Sells For $3.1 Million“, PCGS.com. April 26, 2013. Accessed August 1, 2016.

Ron Guth. “New Record Price for 1913 Liberty Nickel: $4.15 Million“, PCGS.com. June 3, 2005. Accessed August 1, 2016.

Eliasberg 1913 Liberty Nickel, PCGS PR-66, Sold for $5 Million“, PCGS.com. April 25, 2007. Accessed August 1, 2016.

Brian Schneider. “The Mysterious 1913 Liberty Nickel“, Liberty Nickel Collector Society. Accessed August 1, 2016.

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