The 1913 Liberty Head Nickel
Although with five known copies, the 1913 Liberty Head “V” nickel is not the most rare coin, it is perhaps the favorite coin amongst collectors and certainly one of the most famous of the world’s extremely rare coins. In 1972 a 1913 Liberty was the first coin sell for more than $100,000, and then in 1996 a 1913 Liberty again made headlines when it sold for more than $1,000,000. In 2007 a 1913 Liberty changed hands for the astounding sum of $5,000,000!
Officially there are no 1913 Liberty Head nickels. In 1913 the Indian Head nickel (often referred to as a Buffalo nickel) replaced the Liberty and the United States Mint has no record of any Liberties being struck.
The coins first came to the attention of the collector community in 1920 when a former U.S. Mint employee named Samuel Brown attended the American Numismatic Association's annual convention and displayed all five copies there. Brown had run an ad in the December 1919 issue of the Numismatist which read: “Wanted 1913 Liberty Head Nickel / In Proof condition, if possible. Will pay $500 cash for one. / Samuel Brown / North Tonswanda, N.Y.” Brown claimed to have come into possession of the nickels as a result of the ad, but conventional wisdom states that he was involved in the striking of the coins himself and ran the ad to create a cover story.
In was in the midst of the Great Depression that the 1913 Liberty nickel truly captured the imagination of the American public. Texas millionaire and coin dealer B. Max Mehl launched a years-long advertising campaign offering to buy the coins for $50 each. Mehl, of course, was not expecting to find any additional 1913s, he was trying to promote his book the Star Rare Coin Encyclopedia. His offer, however, stimulated a nationwide search for additional specimens. Unfortunately the offer also stimulated the production of thousands of faked coins with altered dates mostly from 1903, 1910 or 1912.
Brown ultimately sold the five coins to Edward Green who kept the set intact until his death in 1936 at which point his estate was auctioned and the coins dispersed.
In the decades which followed, numismatists have kept close tabs on the coins and maintained lengthy pedigrees as they changed hands. One of the five, however, went missing for more than forty years. George Walton bought the coin in 1945. On March 9, 1962, Walton was on his way to a coin show with a small fortune in other coin rarities when his was killed in an automobile accident. Walton had planned to exhibit his 1913 Liberty at the show, and therefore even though it was not found at the crash site it was believed to have been with him and either lost or stolen from the site. As it turns out, the coin was not in Walton’s car after all but rather was among some of his other coins misidentified. It was not until 2003 that Walton’s heirs realized the error and had the coin in question authenticated as one of the original five 1913 Liberties.
Today all five examples are accounted for. Three of the coins are in private collections. One coin is currently held and displayed by the American Numismatic Association's Money Museum. The fifth is currently an exhibit at the Smithsonian Institution.