1913 Liberty Head. NGC graded Proof 66. Finest Known of Only Five Struck. The Louis E. Eliasberg, Sr., Specimen. Five were struck, and four accounted for, two of which are in museums: the finest certified known in private hands. The piece has glittering mirror surface and, perhaps, is the only specimen with this characteristic (the others exhibiting duller, more matte-like fields).
The famed Eliasberg specimen has been widely acclaimed and has been featured in more exhibitions than any other. More people have seen it than any other coin in American numismatics. Evidently, only five Liberty Head type five-cent pieces were struck in 1913. Of the five, the so-called Reynolds specimen (No. 2 in the Registry below, appended from the Bowers and Merena sale of the Eliasberg Collection), has not been examined by numismatists in recent decades. Its whereabouts are currently unknown, and may be the third or fourth finest of the five.
Another specimen that some believe may be the second finest known is in the holdings of the Smithsonian Institution, having earlier resided in the Ambassador and Mrs. R. Henry Norweb collection. This is listed as No. 3 in the Registry.
The Olsen specimen (No. 4), the grading of which has been variously described as from Mint State 60 to its current PCGS Proof 64 classification, is owned by Spectrum Numismatics. It is perhaps the third or fourth finest of the five, depending upon how it compares with the missing Reynolds coin.
The McDermott coin (No. 5), now in the American Numismatic Association Museum in Colorado Springs, is somewhat worn due to being mixed with pocket change.
More descriptive histories of the five specimens are given in the Registry below.
According to Bowers, in his May 1996 offering of the Eliasberg Collection, “in the early 1940s, Eric P. Newman, a St. Louis numismatist, bought some paper money from the numismatic estate of Col. E.H.R. Green that was being sold by Burdette G. Johnson, a well-known dealer of the same city. Upon asking if any coins were available, Newman was shown an inventory by Johnson. Listed were all five of the 1913 Liberty Head nickels, which had been acquired en bloc by Green in the mid-1920s, just as he had once bought the entire sheet of 100 1918 25¢ stamps with inverted “Jenny” biplane — representing the entire population of that famous stamp.
“Eric P. Newman in partnership with Johnson bought all five of the 1913 Liberty Head nickels, and later sold four of them, keeping the finest, one of only two with Proof surface, for his own cabinet.” (This glittering gem was later sold to Louis E. Eliasberg, Sr., privately through Numismatic Gallery. Until 1996 it had never been featured or offered at auction.)
Story of the 1913 Nickel
Early in the year 1913, before the Indian or buffalo design was introduced in February, it has been postulated that just five 1913-dated nickel five-cent coins were struck at the mint at Philadelphia employing the still current Liberty Head that had been in production since 1883. Some point to the mint’s Medal Department as the likely source, where Proofs and other special strikings were made (including limited edition pieces such as the 1907 Ultra High Relief $20 Proofs). It appears one Samuel W. Brown, a numismatist who attended the American Numismatic Association Convention when it was held in Philadelphia in 1908, was an employee of the Mint at the time. He worked in the coining department and also with the Mint Collection. Brown is considered the mostly likely person who received the five pieces. He kept them in his possession until 1920 where they were openly shown and advertised.
Again, the circumstances surrounding the issuance of the 1913 Liberty Head nickel is steeped in mystery: an enigma lost in obscurity muted by silence as to those responsible for making the dies, preparing the machinery, and striking the coins. Quite possibly Samuel Brown received them via engraver George T. Morgan, who produced rarities upon occasion for sale to dealers (in particular, Henry Chapman) and collectors (Cleveland industrialist Ambrose Swasey is an example), and who is believed to have been involved in making the famous MCMVII Ultra High Relief double eagles. The five 1913 Liberty Head nickels were displayed by Brown at the 1920 ANA convention.
“In early January 1913,” according, again, to Bowers in his catalog of the Eliasberg specimen, “it was perfectly legal to make a 1913 Liberty Head nickel at the Mint…under practices then inn effect at the Mint, all one had to do was to exchange another date of five-cent piece for a 1913 Liberty Head. Although none had been made in quantity for circulation, in early 1913 the Liberty Head motif was the standard design in use, the ‘Buffalo’ nickel not yet having been either perfected as to design or issued for circulation.”
Bowers goes on to say, “The first ‘experimental’ Indian-Buffalo nickels were struck on January 7, 1913, but production for circulation did not take place until after February 15, as there were problems with the design. For someone in the Medal Department of the Mint to have struck a few 1913 Liberty Head nickels for cabinet purposes early in January 1913 would have been neither unusual nor illegal. The Liberty Head motif was the official design until it was replaced with the Indian-Buffalo motif, and this did not happen until well into February 1913.”
Curiously, had the design difficulties not been ironed out, Liberty Head nickels might have been made in large quantities for circulation in 1913. As it was, “the Mint had been told to do nothing with the nickel denomination until the new Indian-Buffalo design was perfected.”
(Bowers postulates an alternative source for the five 1913 nickels: they “could have been struck as test pieces in autumn 1912 when dies for the next years coinage were being made, and before it was decided not to use the design.”)
Whatever the circumstances of striking, the 1913 Liberty Head nickel remains today the most publicized of all American coins.
“Decades ago Texas dealer B. Max Mehl spent millions of dollars advertising in magazines and newspapers and on the radio selling copies of his Star Rare Coin Encyclopedia which listed prices he paid for coins. The idea was that if you were lucky enough to find a 1913 Liberty Head nickel in change, you could pay off the mortgage on the ranch or send Junior to college. The 1913 nickel captured the public’s fancy and become the focal point of his advertising campaign which extended over a period of many years. Along the way, the 1913 Liberty Head nickel gained incredible fame. It is said that traffic was slowed in big cities as streetcar conductors examined incoming nickels from passengers, seeking a prized 1913! It was front row center in the minds of just about everyone.
More than any other single individual, Mehl popularized the hobby of coin collecting. Despite his search for the 1913 Liberty Head nickel, B. Max Mehl was never able to buy one. During his lifetime, Col. Green retained possession of all five pieces.
Registry of the Five 1913 Liberty Head Nickels
The five 1913 Liberty, representing the total number believed to have been struck, were owned by Samuel Brown until, in January 1924, August Wagner, a Philadelphia coin dealer, advertised the five for sale. The buyer was Stephen K. Nagy, who then sold them to Wayte Raymond, who in turn sold them to Col. E.H.R. Green, the famous Fort Worth, Texas area collector. After Green’s death on June 8, 1936, his coins were appraised by F.C.C. Boyd of New York and sold in 1942 to Eric P. Newman and B.G. Johnson (St. Louis Stamp & Coin Co.) who with Henry Chapman had participated earlier in the distribution of the Virgil M. Brand estate.
1. ELIASBERG SPECIMEN. Finest known. The presently-offered coin, graded by Numismatic Guarantee Corporation as Proof 66. In holder #999999-001. Said to be one of only two with Proof finish. Purchased by Louis Eliasberg from Abe Kosoff in 1948 by way of Eric P. Newman.
Provenance: Samuel W. Brown, August Wagner, Stephen K. Nagy, Wayte Raymond, Col. E.H.R. Green, Burdette G. Johnson and Eric P. Newman, Abe Kosoff and Abner Kreisberg (Numismatic Gallery), Louis E. Eliasberg, Sr., Jay Parrino’s The Mint, to present consignor.
2. REYNOLDS SPECIMEN. Present whereabouts unknown. It has been conjectured this coin passed into the hands of George O. Walton, North Carolina collector and dealer who often obtained coins on consignment from dealers and sold them to customers by visiting them in person. Walton was killed in a car accident on March 9, 1962, after which it reached print that he had been the owner of a 1913 Liberty Head nickel. There has been no verification of this ownership by modern researchers.
Provenance: Samuel W. Brown, August Wagner, Stephen K. Nagy, Wayte Raymond, Col. E.H.R. Green, Burdette G. Johnson and Eric P. Newman, James Kelly, Dr. Copnway A. Bolt, R.J. Reynolds and family (North Carolina), possibly George O. Walton.
3. NORWEB SPECIMEN. The Norweb 1913 nickel is now in the Smithsonian Institution, where it is a showpiece. Earlier it belonged to the colorful King Farouk of Egypt. In the sale of the Farouk collection, it was included as part of a date collection of nickels, without any particular notice being made of it! In the 1970s the Norweb family made several important gifts to numismatic institutions including a 1787 Brasher doubloon and many other coins to the American Numismatic Society, New York, and the 1913 Liberty Head nickel to the National Coin Collection at the Smithsonian Institution. The coin almost went to the American Numismatic Association, but in the end Mrs. Norweb selected the Smithsonian.
Provenance: Samuel W. Brown, August Wagner, Stephen K. Nagy, Wayte Raymond, Col. E.H.R. Green, Burdette G. Johnson and Eric P. Newman, F.C.C. Boyd, Abe Kosoff and Abner Kreisberg (Numismatic Gallery), King Farouk, partnership of Abe Kosoff and Sol Kaplan, Norweb family, Smithsonian Institution.
4. OLSEN SPECIMEN. This is probably the most publicized of all 1913 Liberty Head nickels. It is the only example ever handled by B. Max Mehl, for whom the 1913 nickel was central to his lifelong advertising campaign. The Olsen Specimen has been widely featured in print and on television, including being the subject of an episode on the program Hawaii Five-0 in 1974. A few years ago, subsequent owner Reed Hawn exhibited it several times alongside his other world-class rarity, the 1804 silver dollar.
Provenance: Samuel W. Brown, August Wagner, Stephen K. Nagy, Wayte Raymond, Col. E.H.R. Green, Burdette G. Johnson and Eric P. Newman, James Kelly, Fred Olsen, B. Max Mehl, King Farouk (per Breen’s encyclopedia but probably an error), B. Max Mehl, Will W. Neil, B. Max Mehl, Edwin Hydeman, Abe Kosoff, WorldWide Coin Investments, Bowers and Ruddy Galleries, Inc. (Q. David Bowers and James F. Ruddy), Continental Coin Co., Superior Galleries, Dr. Jerry Buss, Superior Galleries, Reed Hawn, Stack’s, Spectrum Numismatics. Graded as Proof 64 by PCGS.
5. McDermott SPECIMEN. The fifth example is somewhat circulated. McDermott, a disabled veteran, was for many years the leading advertiser in the Numismatic Scrapbook Magazine. “He was fond of mixing it with change in his pocket, then taking it out and showing it to a bartender — often in a hotel where a coin convention was being held — telling the barkeep and anyone else within earshot that it was one of just five known and was very valuable.” After McDermott died in 1966, his widow Betts consigned it to James Kelly of Paramount International Coin Corporation.
Provenance: Samuel W. Brown, August Wagner, Stephen K. Nagy, Wayte Raymond, Col. E.H.R. Green, Burdette G. Johnson and Eric P. Newman, James Kelly, J.V. McDermott, Aubrey and Adeline Bebee, American Numismatic Association Money Museum.
The Big Event Approaches
Of the five 1913 Liberty Head nickels, two are permanently impounded, there is a third whose whereabouts is not known, there is the Spectrum Numismatics coin and this, the finest known, the illustrious Eliasberg specimen to be auctioned in the present sale, March 2001. The numismatic world will be eagerly anticipating to see who will be the next owner of the Louis E. Eliasberg, Sr., specimen of the 1913 Liberty Head nickel, the finest known example of a spectacular rarity whose fames increases each time any is offered.