By CoinWeek ….
As readers of Harvey Stack’s series of articles “Growing up in a Numismatic Family” might be aware, Stack’s Bowers has nurtured relationships with high-profile collectors and their families that have lasted generations. These relationships revolve around genuine affection and a mutual love of numismatics, and the stories that result often focus on important collections and legendary coins.
One such coin is the Eliasberg 1913 Liberty Head Nickel, the finest of only five known examples of the issue and the first collectible coin ever to sell for more than $1 million.
The 1913 Liberty Head Nickel
In 1913, the United States Mint switched from the Liberty Head nickel design to the Indian Head or “Buffalo” nickel, and as such no official Liberty Head pieces are known to have been struck that year.
Six years later, a former Mint employee named Samuel Brown placed an ad in the December issue of The Numismatist wherein he offered to pay $500 to anyone who provided him with a 1913-dated Liberty Head nickel.
It was the first most collectors had heard of the issue.
Then, in 1920, Mr. Brown displayed five of the coins, all Proofs, at the American Numismatic Association’s annual convention.
This was certainly the first chance most Numismatist readers had to see them.
But if Samuel Brown’s story were true, then he spent up to $2,500 on the six-year-old nickels. According to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics’ handy inflation calculator, this would be about $33,280 in today’s dollars.
Quite the gamble for a coin that no one but Mr. Brown seemed to know about. To this day, no one is aware of any other specimens.
Of course, most numismatists suspect that Brown manufactured the unauthorized strikes hmself–a not-unheard-of occurrence at the Mint. However some, like Stack’s Bowers co-founder Q. David Bowers, have suggested ways in which the coins could have been created through legal channels, such as trials made in 1912 to test the new dies or as additions to the Mint’s coin cabinet.
At any rate, Brown sold the coins in 1924, and they remained together until 1936 when they were sold as part of the estate of noted New York coin collector “Colonel” E.H.R. Green. It was at this sale that Eric P. Newman and his mentor, St. Louis coin dealer Burdette G. Johnson, purchased the 1913 Liberty Head nickels and split the set.
Their paths now divergent, each of the coins has accrued illustrious pedigrees–the names by which they have come to be known: Olsen, Norweb, McDermott, Walton and Eliasberg. Books can and have been written about these coins. Two are currently in institutional hands: one at the Smithsonian (Norweb) and one at the ANA Money Museum (McDermott); the other three are in (well-heeled) private hands.
Of those three collectible examples, two are Proofs (Olsen and Eliasberg).
And of these Proofs, it is the Eliasberg coin that inspires our current tale.
The Eliasberg specimen was bought from Eric P. Newman by Numismatic Gallery, who then sold it to its namesake, Louis Eliasberg, Sr. The Baltimore financier’s collection is deservedly famous for being the only contemporaneously complete collection of United States coins ever assembled. In 1996, Bowers & Merena sold Eliasberg’s 1913 Liberty Head to Jay Parrino for a record-making $1,485,000 USD – the first time a coin had ever been sold for a million dollars in the open market.
In March of 2001, the auction house Superior sold the coin for $1,840,000 to Dwight Manley, and two years later Manley sold the specimen to Ed Lee. Bruce Morelan and Legend Numismatics bought the coin from Lee for $4,150,000 in May of 2005, and in 2007 Stack’s sold the Eliasberg specimen for $5 million to an anonymous buyer. California-based coin dealer Ron Gillio negotiated the deal between the buyer and Legend.
Now, in 2018, Stack’s Bowers is offering the Eliasberg at the official auction of the August ANA World’s Fair of Money in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Graded PR-66 by PCGS, it is being sold by the family of Dr. William “Bill” Morton-Smith of Boston. Once upon a time, Dr. Morton-Smith was exploring a colonial-era desk that he had inherited from his great-grandfather when he fortuitously stumbled across a complete set of Proof Liberty Head nickels (among a wider selection of colonials, half cents and large cents) that included the 1913. The find spurred him on to learn about the coins, and over time the doctor added to his family’s collection.
Besides being a repeat performance for Stack’s (Bowers) working with the Morton-Smiths to auction a 1913 Liberty Head nickel, the company has also helped them sell an 1804 dollar (the Eliasberg-Garrett specimen) and a 1794 dollar (the Lord St. Oswald-Norweb specimen) in the past.