"This coin is to numismatists what the Mona Lisa is to the art world.” This statement was reportedly made by a numismatist involved in the sale of a 1913 Liberty Head nickel. Such sales are quite rare, as only five of these coins are known to exist. Indeed, though there are rarer coins in existence, few coins have captured the attention of both numismatists and the general public alike as the 1913 Liberty Head nickel.
Charles Barber’s Liberty Head design was first produced in 1883. After three decades of continuous production, and the redesign of most circulating US coinage over the preceding few years the nickel was due for a refresh. By the summer of 1912, the US Mint was readying production of James Earle Fraser’s new nickel design, known today as the Buffalo nickel or Indian Head nickel. However, production of the new design was delayed over objections by the Hobbs Manufacturing Company, a firm that manufactured devices to detect counterfeit nickels in coin-operated machines. Though the new Buffalo nickel design was approved in July 1912, the “Hobbs Affair” dragged on for months and was not settled until February 1913.
It is suspected that, given the uncertainty over the new design, a master die utilizing the old Liberty Head design had been prepared for the 1913 year, and a few coins had been struck to test it. It is also possible that a numismatist named Samuel Brown, who had been working at the US Mint in 1913 and came to own all five specimens by 1919, had the coins struck clandestinely. Whatever the case, it is almost certain that they were removed from the Mint under dubious circumstances. The true story is still a matter of debate, and the various tales only add to the mystique of these five coins.
So while the exact origins of the 1913 Liberty Head nickels are still unclear, the coins themselves quickly became the object of much interest after Brown announced their existence at a convention in 1920. Public interest was largely sparked by a Texas-based coin dealer named B. Max Mehl. Though likely just a marketing campaign to spur sales of his own coin encyclopedia, Mehl offered fifty dollars for any 1913 Liberty Head nickel – an outrageous sum during the Great Depression! Though likely apocryphal, it has been said that trolleys were often delayed by conductors, who would rifle through nickels paid as fares, looking for a 1913 example.
The subsequent history of the five coins has further added to their allure. All five stayed together in the collections of various numismatists until the 1940s, when they were sold off to various collectors. Each of the five coins is now known by name, each referring to a collector who came to possess it. For example, the “Eliasberg specimen” was purchased by famous numismatist Louis Eliasberg. King Farouk of Egypt briefly owned two different examples (the “Olson” and “Norweb” specimens) at different times. The “McDermott” specimen is known to exhibit some signs of wear, as J. V. McDermott often showed it off in public. Lastly, the “Walton” specimen was mistakenly declared a fake in 1963 following George Walton’s death, but was later rediscovered and re-authenticated. Rumors of a sixth specimen are unfounded - for now.
The 1913 Liberty Head nickel’s notoriety has endured. In 1973, it was the subject of an episode of Hawaii Five-O entitled “The $100,000 Nickel.” In fact, the Eliasberg specimen became the first coin to sell for over $1 million in 1996. Since 2010, two examples have fetched in excess of $3 million at auction.