1913 Liberty Head Nickel

A Rarity is Created

The story of this famous coin goes back to 1913. Early in that year it was decided to replace the familiar Liberty Head nickel, in circulation since 1883, with a new design, popularly called the “Buffalo” nickel, featuring on the obverse an Indian or Native American, and on the reverse a buffalo (more properly a bison in terms of zoology). In time, such Buffalo nickels were made by the millions, and were produced for many years thereafter, indeed until 1938.

However, very early in the year 1913, or late in 1912, when dies had been prepared for a 1913-dated Liberty Head nickel, perhaps anticipating a large coinage that never materialized, a handful of pieces, believed to be just five, were struck. The circumstances were not recorded, and the mystery of the 1913 Liberty Head nickel began!

It seems that the person involved was Samuel W. Brown, an established coin collector who lived in Philadelphia and worked at the Mint. Or, perhaps someone else was involved. In any event, when the nickels first became known to the collecting community, it was Brown who had them. It was not particularly unusual for insiders at the Mint to acquire “special pieces,” and elsewhere it is recorded that a few years later in 1916, Secretary of the Treasury William G. McAdoo obtained a group of pattern silver coins of that year. How do we know this? Because they remained in his family and were later described by his daughter. During the same era George T. Morgan (of “Morgan dollar” fame) was assistant engraver, and from time to time he made special Proofs and other pieces for numismatists (including Ambrose Swasey).

It was 1919 before the 1913 Liberty Head nickel first reached print. By that time Brown lived in North Tonawanda, New York, a town near Niagara Falls, where he was recognized as an important citizen and, at a later time, served as mayor. Either he already had all five Liberty Head nickels, or he had heard of them and wanted to acquire them, but whatever the reason, he advertised in the December 1919 issue of The Numismatist to pay $500 each for any such coins. In January 1920 he raised the ante to $600. It is my studied opinion that the owner, at least in part, was Stephen K. Nagy, Philadelphia dealer and son-in-law of old-time professional numismatist John W. Haseltine. This is part of a large and interesting file I have compiled on this rarity, a confidential copy (not for publication) of which will be given to the successful bidder for the Eliasberg/Legend nickel in our January 2007 auction. I suggest that Nagy was the main owner, or a partner with Brown, although it is not known at what point in time Nagy and Brown acquired the nickels. In his career Nagy handled many prime rarities, including all 10 of the known 1884 trade dollars and all five of the 1885 trade dollars. His style was always to work behind the scenes, to be in the background.

The Brown advertisements were successful and attracted wide notice. Various people in the Treasury Department, including at the Mint, received The Numismatist and no doubt saw the listings. Perhaps one of them had a group of 1913 nickels and came forth with an offer, perhaps to Nagy, who had very close connections to the Mint. Or, perhaps Nagy and Brown already owned the nickels in 1919, and this was their way of introducing them to the market.

Whatever the circumstances, and we will probably never know them, in August 1920 Brown startled the collecting community by displaying five pieces, nicely fitted in a leather case! Not even the most experienced collectors and dealers had ever seen such pieces before! Now, the numismatic community was aware of a coin that would soon become famous beyond anyone’s imagination.

Millionaire Col. Green

In time, all five 1913 Liberty Head nickels were sold by Nagy as a group to Col. E.H.R. Green, eccentric son of millionairess Hetty Green, popularly known as the “Witch of Wall Street.” After his mother passed away, Col. Green, as he became known, released all inhibitions and spent vast sums on his hobbies and interests. In time he could proudly point to such “collectibles” as a full-scale operating railroad in Texas, antique whaling ships at harbor in Massachusetts, his own radio station, and a vast collection of coins.

On the stamp collecting scene, he owned all 100 of the famous 1918 “Jenny invert” postage stamps (a 24-cent air mail stamp, with a Curtis Jenny flying upside down—the sheet had been fed into the press incorrectly during the final printing stage). Today, this sheet of 100 stamps has been long since broken apart. Individual examples are worth up to a couple hundred thousand dollars each. An account of Green and the 1913 Liberty Head nickel appears in my 1979 book, Adventures With Rare Coins, in case you might want to locate a copy (it has been out of print for years).

Col. Green was also responsible for hundreds of serial number 1 sheets of Series of 1929 National Bank bills being saved. Through agent George Blake such sheets were acquired by contacting the cashiers of the banks that received them. Certainly, a book-length biography of Green would make fascinating reading today. The same could be said for a number of other characters who played on the stage of the 1913 Liberty Head nickel, including names mentioned in the following paragraphs.

A Surprise for Eric Newman

Col. Green’s 1913 Liberty Head nickels were a prized possession, and they remained with him until he died in 1936. So far as I know, Green never displayed them. Afterward, the Green estate was handled by the Chase National Bank of New York City. As circumstances would have it, in St. Louis young Eric P. Newman, a numismatist and up-and-coming lawyer, desired to buy a piece of St. Louis currency from the Green estate, and wrote to inquire. For several years numismatists had been endeavoring to get hold of the treasures in the Green collection, but their approaches must not have been right, or the bank wasn’t ready, or there may have been other reasons, for all were rebuffed. Newman had a personal connection with Green, for in the early 1930s, when Newman was a student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, he was part of a group that utilized Col. Green’s private radio station on Star Island to communicate with the Admiral Byrd expedition in Antarctica—to guide them through an appendicitis emergency.

Eric Newman’s inquiry concerning the Green estate arrived at the right time, and the response he received was startling: No, the single St. Louis bill was not for sale by itself, but a group of bills, including the St. Louis note, could be purchased! He went to his local friend, coin dealer Burdette G. Johnson, and sought advice and financing. Over a period of time several shipments of coins and paper money were quietly purchased from the Green estate.

Then the 1913 Liberty Head nickels became available. What were they worth? There were few clues to be had, as none had ever sold openly on the market. It was the tail end of the Depression, and rarities were not in as much demand as they had been in the Roaring ’20s, but still, this was an amazing opportunity. An offer of $500 each was made for two, but all five had to be purchased, so $333.33 each was suggested for the others, bringing the total price to $2,000.00. A deal was struck!

Today, the same group would be worth on the far side of $15 million to be sure, perhaps even far more! Eric Newman’s collecting emphasis was on older issues such as American colonial coins, paper money, and numismatic history, and Liberty Head nickels, dated 1913 or otherwise, were not among his specialties. Accordingly, one by one he dispersed of them, until they were all gone.

Nationwide Focus on the 1913 Nickel!

Times were difficult in the Depression years of 1930s, and the term, “Brother, can you spare a dime?” had true meaning. Few people had two dimes, or two nickels either, to rub together! At the same time, the hobby of coin collecting was alive and well, never mind that great rarities might have been selling for reduced prices. A grass roots interest had arisen, along with other hobbies (such as jigsaw puzzles, miniature golf, crossword puzzles, and attending movies), and all was well.

Perhaps the most active of all rare coin dealers was B. Max Mehl, who held forth in business from an elaborate office in his own Mehl Building on Magnolia Avenue in Fort Worth, Texas. Mehl handled many great rarities, including the famous 1804 silver dollar, fondly called “The King of American Coins.” However, try as he might, he had never been able to buy a 1913 Liberty Head nickel! One and all examples had eluded his grasp!

Mehl was an enterprising sort of man, and along with buying, selling, and auctioning great collections, he also published a popular guide, the Star Rare Coin Encyclopedia. This volume, well over 100 pages in length, illustrated coins from colonial times to modern, and gave the prices he would pay. Special focus in his advertising was given to the 1913 Liberty Head nickel. If you were lucky enough to find one, send it to Mehl and a handsome check would come by return mail!

During the Depression Mehl spent hundreds of thousands of dollars advertising in Sunday newspapers and even had his own radio program. First and foremost, the 1913 Liberty Head nickel was in the limelight. It is said that all over America, streetcars slowed down and schedules were missed as conductors looked through incoming nickels hoping to find a prized 1913 Liberty Head! This quest became a nationwide passion!

The fame of the piece grew. However, nobody found one, as Col. Green held on to all of them. If anything, the Mehl advertising served to solidify the thought that only five were minted—for, surely, if more had been “out there,” they would have been found! As fortune would have it, it was not until November 7, 1944, when Mehl auctioned the collection of Fred E. Olsen, that he was able to personally handle a 1913 Liberty Head nickel, one of the coins earlier sold by Eric P. Newman. By that time the Texas dealer was toward the end of his career. He lived until 1957, then went to his final reward. By this time, just about every aware person in the United States of America knew that the 1913 Liberty Head nickel was the great rarity!

The Fabulous Five

As the years passed, the five 1913 Liberty Head nickels went from here to there, always highly prized. One landed in the collection of King Farouk of Cairo, Egypt. After Farouk was ousted from the throne in 1952 by a military junta, his holdings were put up for sale. The “Palace Collection” auction took place in 1954. His 1913 Liberty Head nickel became a key attraction in the collection of Ambassador and Mrs. R. Henry Norweb of Cleveland. In 1977 I did the appraisal of the coin, then valued well into six figures, after which I facilitated its donation to the National Numismatic Collection in the Smithsonian Institution, where it remains as a centerpiece today.

Another piece went to J.V. McDermott, of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, a coin dealer who in essence built his life around this 1913 Liberty Head nickel, in the 1950s carrying it as pocket change, to pull out at a restaurant or bar to proudly display, stating it was worth a small fortune. If you want to read about McDermott and his nickel-of-all-nickels, dig out a few copies of the Numismatic Scrapbook Magazine from the 1950s, as he mentioned it many times in print—it was as much his icon as the Mona Lisa is for the Louvre. Finally, he was persuaded to put it into a small plastic holder, which he did, by which time the piece had become somewhat worn. In 1967 this specimen was consigned by his widow, Beth, to the Paramount International Coin Corporation of Englewood, Ohio. At the time I was a part of that firm, and when it arrived, company president James F. Kelly (who also wrote the “Trends” column for Coin World) passed it around the company, where we all enjoyed looking at it. I volunteered to write an in-depth history of it, but Kelly was in charge, and long historical descriptions, never mind that they might have been interesting to read, were not his cup of tea. However, I can say that I “helped” with the coin in a way. At the ANA sale that summer, by which time I had left Paramount, the coin sold for the then record price of $46,000. The purchasers were Aubrey and Adeline Bebee, who donated it to the American Numismatic Association Museum in Colorado Springs, Colorado, where it remains today.

Another 1913 Liberty Head nickel became the property of Edwin Hydeman of York, Pennsylvania, then World-Wide Coin Investments, and later was owned by Jerry Buss, purchased by Reed Hawn in Stack’s October Anniversary Sale in 1993, then passed on to others including Laura Sperber and Legend Numismatics. I was co-owner of this coin at one time in the 1970s. This was showcased in a spectacular reception held in the summer of 2003 just before the American Numismatic Association, and was hosted by Steve Geppi and John Snyder of Diamond International, arranged by Laura Sperber.

The finest quality piece was sold by Eric Newman to Louis E. Eliasberg, Sr., of Baltimore in 1948. It thus became a showpiece in the greatest collection of United States coins ever formed—a cabinet complete with every date and mintmark from the 1793 half cent to the 1933 double eagle. No collection like this had been assembled before, and none like it will ever be formed again. When the Eliasberg 1913 Liberty Head nickel was sold by Bowers and Merena/Stack’s in 1996 it was the first United States coin to realize over $1 million when it brought $1,485,000.

The fifth example of the 1913 Liberty Head nickel passed through several hands and became the property of George O. Walton, a North Carolina collector whose holdings, except this nickel, were auctioned by Stack’s a half century ago. This coin disappeared from view for a while, then in 2003 was exhibited at the ANA Convention by his heirs, surprising and delighting all who had a chance to see it.