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Back in 1913, the US Mint introduced a new design for the 5-cent piece that featured a Native American on the front and a bison on the back. The new Buffalo nickel officially replaced the Liberty Head design that had been the standard since 1883.
On Monday, GreatCollections of Irvine, CA, announced it purchased a 1913 Liberty Head nickel for $4.2 million. The coin is the holy grail of numismatic collectors because it was produced in Philadelphia without the consent of the US Mint. Only Buffalo nickels were supposed to be minted that year but, somehow, five Liberty designs got through.
Samuel Brown, a numismatist and former Mint employee, first revealed the impossibly rare, unofficial, coins in 1920. It’s been speculated that Brown may have struck these himself or hired an insider to do it for him.
What makes the story even more intriguing is that this particular specimen — known as the Walton nickel because it was owned since 1945 by North Carolina collector George O. Walton — was mistakenly judged a fake by New York numismatic “experts” after Walton’s death in 1962.
Walton tragically died in a car crash en route to a coin show. His vehicle had been loaded with rare specimens, including his 1913 Liberty Head nickel. His heirs offered the coins for sale via a New York-based auction house, but the 1913 Liberty Head was deemed a fake and returned to the family. Today, insiders believe that the New York “experts” were ill-suited to make that judgement because they had never seen any of the other four specimens in person. All they had for reference were photos.
The Walton nickel would spend the next 40-plus years in the closet of Walton’s sister’s house in Virginia.
The coin remained off the radar until 2003 when a nationwide search for the missing 1913 Liberty Head was conducted as part of a publicity stunt hatched by public relations specialist Donn Pearlman on behalf of Bowers and Merena Galleries. The firm offered a minimum of $1 million for the coin’s return and sale. The other four 1913 Liberty Head coins were scheduled to appear at the The American Numismatic Association (ANA) World’s Fair of Money 2003 in Baltimore.
Walton’s heirs got wind of the offer and decided to present their-dormant specimen for analysis. In a secured room in the Baltimore Convention Center, a half-dozen experts compared the Walton coin with the four other known specimens and concluded that the long-lost 1913 Liberty Head nickel was, indeed, legit.
Walton’s heirs finally sold the coin for $3.1 million in 2013 on the occasion of its 100th anniversary. The fabled nickel was privately acquired in 2018 by the Firman family of Florida for an undisclosed price.
“Our family thoroughly enjoyed owning the Walton nickel for the past four years and it was fulfilling for us to have it on display at the American Numismatic Association Money Museum in Colorado and in exhibits across the country during this time,” stated Ron Firman of Miami.
“Two of the five known 1913 Liberty Head nickels are in museums; one in the Smithsonian’s National Numismatic Collection and another example still at the ANA Money Museum in Colorado,” explained Ian Russell, President of GreatCollections. “This is the second one that I purchased in the past year on behalf of collectors, but I doubt if any of the three 1913 Liberty Head nickels now in private hands will become available again for years.”
According to coinnews.net, some of the top names in coin collecting have possessed a 1913 Liberty nickel. They include King Farouk of Egypt, Louis Eliasberg, Col. EHR Green, Eric Newman, Dr. Jerry Buss, Bruce Morelan and Gerald Forsythe.
Credits: Liberty Head 1913 nickel courtesy of Professional Coin Grading Service. Ian Russell photo and Liberty Head coin in case courtesy of GreatCollections. Buffalo Head nickel by US Mint (coin), National Numismatic Collection (photograph by Jaclyn Nash), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.