Search articles

Pedigree of Five Known 1913 Liberty Nickels


1996 notes by Q. David Bowers:

FAME: Of all American coin rarities, the 1913 Liberty Head nickel is probably the most famous. 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 became the key to 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!

BACKGROUND: The circumstances surrounding the issuance of the 1913 Liberty Head nickel are not known today. It is believed that Samuel W Brown, who worked at the Philadelphia Mint and was a numismatist (for example, he attended the 1908 American Numismatic Association convention), was involved. Years later in 1919 he offered to buy some 1913 Liberty Head nickels via an advertisement in The Numismatist. By that time Brown lived in North Tonawanda, New York. After his advertisement appeared, he made known that he had acquired five 1913 Liberty Head nickels, but did not say how he obtained them. The presumption is that he acquired them at the Mint when he worked there, quite possibly 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). The five 1913 Liberty Head nickels were displayed at the 1920 ANA convention.

In early January 1913 it was perfectly legal to make a 1913 Liberty Head nickel at the Mint. As Lee E Hewitt,founder of the Numismatic Scrapbook Magazine and no-nonsense observer of the numismatic scene, said a number of times, under practices then in 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. 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.1 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.

Had not the design problems with the Indian-Buffalo design been straightened 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.

Alternatively, the 1913 Liberty Head nickels could have been struck as test pieces in autumn 1912 when dies for the next year's coinage were being made, and before it was decided not to use the design.

It should be further noted that Brown was well regarded in his time, was elected to the post of mayor of North Tonawanda, New York, and was invited to serve on the Assay Commission at the Philadelphia Mint in 1924 and 1925. No evidence has come to light that Brown was viewed with disfavor by his contemporaries or did anything of an unfavorable nature at the Mint, and he seems to have been an active participant in the numismatic community.

Whatever the circumstances of striking-which will probably forever remain unknown-the 1913 Liberty Head nickel remains today the most publicized of all American coins.

REGISTRY OF SPECIMENS: The five 1913 Liberty Head nickels, representing the total number believed to have been struck, were in the possession of Samuel W. Brown by 1920. 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 super-collector who once owned the original 100-subject sheet of 1918 24¢ airmail stamps with the inverted Curtiss JN-4 biplane. To say that Green led a colorful life would be an understatement.2 After Green's death (June 8, 1936), his coins were appraised in 1937 by F.C.C. Boyd of New York and sold in 1942 through B.G. Johnson (St. Louis Stamp & Coin Co.) who with Henry Chapman had participated earlier in the distribution of the Virgil M. Brand estate. Eric P Newman of St. Louis purchased all five of the 1913 Liberty Head nickels in partnership with B.G. Johnson.

1. ELIASBERG SPECIMEN. Finest known. Selected by St. Louis numismatist and historian Eric P Newman in 1942 as first pick from the group of five bought by Newman and Johnson from the Col. Green estate. It was sold by Mr. Newman to Abe Kosoff in 1948, who sold it to Louis Eliasberg.

Pedigree: Samuel W Brown, August Wagner, Stephen K. Nagy, Wayte Raymond, Col. E.H.R. Green, Eric P. Newman and Burdette G. Johnson, Abe Kosoff and Abner Kreisberg (Numismatic Gallery), Louis E. Eliasberg, Sr.

2. REYNOLDS SPECIMEN. Present whereabouts unknown, despite recent publicity by the Professional Numismatists Guild, Coin World, and others to bring it out of hiding. It has been conjectured that this coin passed into the hands of George O. Walton, North Carolina collector and dealer who often obtained coins on consignment from others and sold them to customers by visiting them in person. Walton was killed in a car crash on March 9, 1962, after which it reached print that he had been an owner of a 1913 Liberty Head nickel. An account to this effect once appeared in the Numismatic Scrapbook Magazine. However, there has been no verification of this ownership by modern researchers.

Pedigree: Samuel W. Brown, August Wagner, Stephen K. Nagy, Wayte Raymond, Col. E.H.R. Green, Eric P Newman and Burdette G. Johnson, James Kelly, Dr. Conway A. Bolt, R.J. Reynolds and family (North Carolina), possibly George O. Walton. Later part of pedigree unverified.

3. NORWEB SPECIMEN. The third is the Norweb Collection specimen donated to the Smithsonian Institution, where it is a showpiece. The present writer did the appraisal for this coin and assisted the Norweb family with the transmission of the munificent gift in 1977.

At one time it was a highlight in the fantastic collection of rare coins formed by His Majesty, King Farouk of Egypt. His reign began in 1936 and was notable for its incompetence, waste, and personal aggrandizement. The Egyptian treasury paid for a long list of art objects, coins, stamps, paperweights, pornography, antiques, and other items with which he surrounded himself. Farouk was an avid buyer of rarities in the 1940s and at the time was the best customer of several American dealers. Many items and collections were sent to Egypt in the 1940s, as the King paid just about any price asked. Numismatic Gallery sold sections of several major collections including patterns from F.C.C. Boyd to Farouk. In other instances, special strikings of medals (1946 United Nations gold "pattern") and contrived rarities (e.g., 1884-dated Hawaiian fantasy coins) were made up for him.

Along the way he acquired many exceedingly important and high quality American rarities that anyone would be proud to own. In particular, he assembled one of the finest holdings of United States gold coins, replete with many rarities and gold strikings of patterns.

On July 26, 1952, he was overthrown by a military junta under Gabal Abdel Nasser and went into exile (where he continued to spend lavishly, but not on collectibles). The military government took over his possessions, and in 1953 announced they would be auctioned. The sale took place in Cairo in early 1954 under the direction of Sotheby's London office. The cataloguing was hasty, perhaps due to the circumstances of consignment, and many rarities were grouped together in lots, often with meager descriptions. The 1913 Liberty Head nickel was included as part of a date collection of nickels, without any particular notice being made of it. Ambassador and Mrs. R. Henry Norweb were among those in attendance in Cairo and wanted to buy the 1913. It fell to the partnership of Sol Kaplan and Abe Kosoff (the latter being a partner with Abner Kreisberg in the Numismatic Gallery) to buy the lot, after which it was sold to the Norwebs.

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 Mrs. Norweb disliked certain "political" situations among elected officials of the ANA, and the Smithsonian was chosen instead. This was probably all for the best, for the ANA later acquired another example.

Pedigree: Samuel W. Brown, August Wagner, Stephen K. Nagy, Wayte Raymond, Col. E.H.R. Green, Eric P Newman and Burdette G. Johnson, EC.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 specimen is probably the most publicized of all examples and has the cachet of being the only example ever handled by B. Max Mehl, for whom the 1913 nickel was central to his lifelong advertising campaign. This 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.

I recall that when my firm had this coin in our inventory for sale in 1975 it was on display all by itself in a special case at the ANA convention in Los Angeles, with a guard standing by. A long line of people formed to gaze at the treasured rarity. This coin was later bought by Superior Stamp & Coin and sold into the collection of Los Angeles sports magnate Dr. Jerry Buss, from whom it went into the Reed Hawn Collection, then via Stack's auction3 to Spectrum Numismatics.

Pedigree: Samuel W. Brown, August Wagner, Stephen K. Nagy, Wayte Raymond, Col. E.H.R. Green, Eric P. Newman and Burdette G. Johnson, James Kelly, Fred Olsen, B. Max Mehl, King Farouk,4 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. BEBEE SPECIMEN (a.k.a. McDermott specimen). The fifth example is somewhat circulated due to being mixed with pocket change. McDermott, a disabled veteran, was for many years the leading advertiser in the Numismatic Scrapbook Magazine. In each issue he would preface his coin listing with some chit-chat, often about his favorite material possession, the 1913 Liberty Head nickel. 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 barman and anyone else within earshot that it was one of just five known and was very valuable. Finally, someone persuaded him to keep it protected, and he put the coin in a small green plastic holder which he continued to carry with him.

The 1913 Liberty head nickel is so rare that years would elapse between offerings. Thus, the McDermott coin attracted many admirers and offers. Some of these cash enticements-always refused by the owner-were mentioned in the Scrapbook. In particular, P.B. Trotter, Jr., a Memphis banker, just had to have this nickel, and kept raising the ante-but to no avail.

After J.V McDermott died on September 29, 1966, his widow Betts consigned it to James Kelly of Paramount International Coin Corporation. Sold at auction in 1967, the coin went to Aubrey E. Bebee. Later, Aubrey and his wife Adeline, having retired from their highly successful rare coin business in Omaha, donated it to the ANA Money Museum in Colorado Springs, where it has been a prime drawing card ever since.

Pedigree: Samuel W. Brown, August Wagner, Stephen K. Nagy, Wayte Raymond, Col. E.H.R. Green, Eric P Newman and Burdette G. Johnson, James Kelly, J.V McDermott, Aubrey and Adeline Bebee, American Numismatic Association Money Museum.

  1. Eliasberg specimen. To be auctioned in May 1996.
  2. Reynolds specimen. Whereabouts unknown.
  3. Norweb specimen. Permanently in the Smithsonian Institution collection.
  4. Olsen specimen. Highly prized by its current owner, Spectrum Numismatics.
  5. Bebee specimen. Permanently in the ANA Money Museum collection.

THE WORLD IN WAIT All eyes in the numismatic world will be awaiting who will be the next owner of the Eliasberg specimen of the 1913 Liberty Head nickel, the finest known example of a dazzling rarity whose fame seems to increase as each year goes by.

1 Don Taxay, U.S. Mint and Coinage, pp. 344-346.
2 Col. Green's mother Hetry was known as "The Witch of Wall Street." The story of her life is told in the book, The Day They Shook the Plum Tree.
3 The well-researched sale catalogue description for which suggested that 1913 Liberty Head nickels were made in the regular course of business at the Mint.

Q. David Bowers has been in the rare coin business since 1953 when he was a teenager. The author has served as president of the American Numismatic Association (1983-1985) and president of the Professional Numismatists Guild (1977-1979), is a recipient of the highest honor bestowed by the ANA (the Farran Zerbe Award), was the first ANA member to be named Numismatist of the Year (1995), has been inducted into the Numismatic Hall of Fame (at the ANA Headquarter in Colorado Springs), is a recipient of the highest honor bestowed by the Professional Numismatists Guild (The Founders' Award), and has received more "Book of the Year Award" and "Best Columnist" honors given by the Numismatic Literary Guild than any other writer. He has has written over 40 books, hundreds of auction and other catalogues, and several thousand articles.
Eliasberg example sold for record $1,840,000 in March, 2001

Eliasberg example sold for record $1,840,000 in March, 2001

Great Collectors and Collections Dealers Liberty Nickels