An ultra-rare 100-year-old U.S. nickel that was illegally produced by a Mint employee and once declared a fake fetched $3.17 million at auction recently, more than $600,000 above the pre-auction estimate. The coin — a 1913 Liberty Head nickel — pulled top dollar because it claims a wild history filled with drama, intrigue, criminal activity, tragedy and an unlikely happy ending.
Coin collectors know that 1913 was the year the popular Buffalo Head nickel was introduced, taking over for the Liberty Head that was in circulation from 1883 until 1912. So where did the 1913 Liberty Head come from? The short answer is that it was created without the blessing of the U.S. government.
Legend has it that Samuel W. Brown, a Philadelphia Mint employee, surreptitiously and illegally struck the Liberty versions by altering the die of the 1912 version to achieve the 1913 date. Only five are known to exist, making it one of the rarest coins in the world.
The illegally cast nickels were exposed to the public for the first time in 1920, when Brown offered them for sale at a numismatic convention. Because the statute of limitations had run out, Brown was able to sell the illicit coins. The five coins remained a set until 1942, when a North Carolina collector — George O. Walton — bought a single 1913 Liberty Head nickel for $3,750, according to the Associated Press.
Walton had the coin in his possession when he was killed in a car crash in 1962. The valuable coin was among 400 that dotted the crash site. Walton’s sister, Melva Givens, inherited the coin, but got bad news when an appraiser told her the coin was a fake because it looked as if the date had been altered.
Presumed worthless, the coin ended up in a box at the back of Givens’ closet for the next 40 years. Upon his mother’s death, Ryan Givens brought the coin to the 2003 American Numismatic Association World's Fair of Money, where the other four 1913 Liberty Head coins were on exhibit.
There he learned that the coin wasn’t a fake at all. It was clear that all the 1913 Liberty Head coins had the same imperfection under the date. A team of rare coin experts concluded it was the long-missing fifth coin.
Even though Givens and his three siblings are now enjoying a multi-million-dollar payday, Givens has mixed emotions about parting with the coin.
"I guess I still feel kind of sad about it and I'll probably feel that way for a while," Givens told ABC2News.com. "It's been in the family for so long."
Givens’ sister, Cheryl Myers, said, “The money is definitely nice. We started with a nickel yesterday morning and now we have $2.7 million." The auction house earned more than $400,000 in sales commission.