1913 Liberty Head Nickel, PR63 PCGS
1913 5C Liberty PR63 PCGS.
The George O. Walton Specimen
First Time Ever at Public Auction
One of America's Ultimate 'Story Coins'
1. Physical Description of the Walton Specimen
John Dale Beety
Only five 1913 Liberty nickels are known, the same five that have been known to exist since they were first displayed together at the 1920 Chicago ANA Convention, just a few months after the first public display of a single specimen in the same city in December 1919. Today, two of the five specimens are in museums, leaving just three examples available to collectors. Of those three, the George Walton specimen has the most remarkable story, recovered from the wreckage of a deadly auto accident and hidden away in a Virginia closet until its rediscovery a decade ago shocked the numismatic world. While the other two specimens have been offered for sale at public auction on multiple occasions, the Walton specimen has never before been offered, publicly or privately.
We know that all five 1913 Liberty nickels were struck with proof dies, polished to create the mirrored appearance commonly associated with brilliant proof coins. However, the planchets for all five pieces were normally produced rather than burnished as they would have been to create brilliant proof nickels. For that reason, the 1913 Liberty nickels have a distinctive appearance unlike any other circulation strike or proof in the series.
During the midnight authentication session for the current Walton specimen, Fred Weinberg conclusively demonstrated that all five coins were struck at the same time. The single press run created five coins of distinctly different sharpness. The strike of the Walton specimen is uneven on the obverse stars, weakest on numbers 2, 7, and 11, and the left ear of corn on the reverse wreath has little detail, a feature it shares with the McDermott-ANA specimen. The sharpness of the left ear of corn, or the lack thereof, is the feature that led past observers to describe three as proofs and two as circulation strikes.
The surfaces indicate a strike from proof dies. Natural strike reflectivity persists beneath faint hairlines, particularly in the protected areas immediately surrounding the devices. The prevailing light gray of the surfaces on both sides complements subtly iridescent overtones. Under a strong light, pink and blue shades blend in the broad areas of the fields and devices, while the transitions between the two tend toward pale green. A few trivial flecks are visible. The largest of those on the obverse, only visible with a glass, appears in the "corner" of Liberty's hair bun. The reverse has some dark patina within the protected areas of (O)F A(MERICA) and smaller flecks nearby.
The most obvious pedigree marker of the Walton specimen is an old scratch that starts near the center of Liberty's neck and rises to the jawline before curving right and down toward the curl at the back of the head. Two strike-throughs curl just above the scratch, while obverse planchet flaws are noted just under the finish of the pinscratch, in a pair just off star 13 and near the 3 in the date (the source of authentication confusion so long ago). These planchet flaws appear in Eric P. Newman's brief notes on the Walton specimen, third in his listing from when he owned all five 1913 Liberty nickels: "Dull Proof - Two slight lines in field opposite 13th star. Dot on neck opposite end of hanging curl."
Condition is less of a concern for the great rarities than on more readily available coins. The PR63 designation assigned to the Walton specimen by PCGS is more of a relative than an absolute assessment, placing the Walton coin as better-preserved than the Norweb-Smithsonian and (particularly) the McDermott-ANA examples, yet less well-preserved than the Eliasberg or Hawn examples.
More important than any technical ranking or physical description is to remember that all of the 1913 Liberty nickels are among the most desired and mysterious issues in U.S. numismatics, and the Walton specimen is among America's ultimate "story coins," as the reader will see in the sections to follow.
2. George Owen Walton Story
George Huber with Ryan Givens
George Walton was a "self-made man," according to his nephew Ryan Givens. The auction offering of his 1913 Liberty nickel is the ultimate vindication of his astute, self-taught skills as a trader and collector, his quest for the finest coins, his good character -- and the sheer "fun" he derived from his collections.
George Walton was in a cheery mood as he strode into the bank in Roanoke, Virginia, in early March 1962 to retrieve his coins. Walton was headed for the first-ever coin show in Wilson, North Carolina, of the combined coin clubs of Wilson and Greensboro, a drive of only a few hours. Walton also carried his famous 1913 Liberty nickel in its custom-made plastic holder, a coin he normally kept in a Charlotte safe deposit box.
According to the reference Million Dollar Nickels, by Paul Montgomery, Mark Borckardt, and Ray Knight, Walton was transporting a briefcase loaded with some $250,000 worth of coins. Walton loved exhibiting his fabulous collection and trading his duplicates for new pieces, and its exhibition at the Wilson show was sure to be a major draw to attendees. Retrieving the coins from his Roanoke safe deposit boxes, Walton chatted briefly with the bank security guard, who was familiar with Walton and his famous collection. The guard mentioned to him, "You know, George, with all those coins you really ought to get a will." Walton's response was, "Oh, don't worry, there's plenty of time for that. I'm still a young person."
--Source: Ryan Givens, nephew of George Walton.
George Owen Walton died instantly about 6:45 p.m. on March 9, 1962, when a vehicle driven by an alcohol-impaired driver crossed into the oncoming lane and crashed into his 1955 Ford station wagon in Nash County, North Carolina. Walton was only 20 miles from his destination, the coin show in Wilson. Walton kept most of his coins in safe deposit boxes in Roanoke and Charlotte.
Walton was born May 15, 1905, in Franklin County, Virginia, the son of James W. "Jimmy" Walton and Roberta "Berta/Bertie" Austin Walton. His death certificate, published on www.ancestry.com http://www.ancestry.com , shows he died instantly of "internal chest injury" as the result of an automobile crash on Highway 264 in Dry Wells, Nash County, North Carolina. His age at the time is given as 54 years on the death certificate that records his birth date as May 15, 1907. The death certificate further reports his burial on March 12, 1962, in the Methodist Church Cemetery in Gogginsville, Virginia, in Franklin County near Rocky Mount. George Walton is buried there along with a brother, Woodrow Walton, and their parents, James and Roberta Walton.
George Walton has been described as a "freelance estate appraiser" and coin collector who had no permanent address but called three cities home: Charlotte; Jacksonville, Florida; and Roanoke. Winston-Salem, North Carolina, near Charlotte, is of course home to the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company; Walton was rumored to have "supplied coins to Reynolds [R.J. Reynolds, Jr. (1906-1964)] and handled sales transactions for the tobacco tycoon," according to Million Dollar Nickels.
Walton today is best-remembered for his ownership of the so-called "Reynolds-Walton" 1913 Liberty nickel, but his collection included many other remarkable pieces. Collectors of Southern gold will appreciate that Walton was also carrying a near-complete set of the one dollar, two and a half dollar, and five dollar Bechtler coinage of 1831-1852 -- some 252 pieces including duplicates -- as well as a virtually complete set of Charlotte gold coins struck between 1838 and 1861.
George Walton's nephew, Ryan Givens, was interviewed specifically for this tribute to his uncle and his remarkable, storied nickel in February 2013. Givens said he believes his uncle was actually carrying around $90,000 worth of coins at the time of his death, and that the reported figure of a quarter-million dollars is an exaggeration. "The story grew in the telling, but it wasn't true." Givens said. "Even Uncle George wouldn't have carried that much around at one time. But $90,000 was a ton of coins back in 1962. And he had the nickel, which he didn't show all the time, but he had the nickel. It was recovered, still in its plastic holder."
Police arriving at the scene identified Walton from a newspaper clipping and realized the coins were valuable. All of the coins he carried were recovered and impounded for the estate in a local bank vault. Most of Walton's coins, including many more that did not accompany him on his fatal drive, would be auctioned by Stack's. Unfortunately, later in 1962 the famous Walton 1913 Liberty nickel would be returned from Stack's, which had consulted with unidentified "authenticators" at the ANS who pronounced the coin a counterfeit -- incorrectly, as it turned out much later, in 2003.
Givens added, "Another part of the story that is untrue is that the coins were scattered across the highway after the wreck. When the nickel was 'missing,' they would all go down where they thought the accident was and look around on the ground, because they thought it might be there. But according to the bank, none of it was scattered on the highway. It was still in the car."
"Especially when the nickel was 'missing,' then you think, 'Well, OK, where is it? It was in a wreck; it might have come out of the car.' And people work that. But people still quote that, that the coins were scattered along the highway. I just saw it the other day in one of the stories. There are parts of the story that will stay out, no matter what. I believe it was John Dannreuther who said, 'In the numismatic world, somebody says something and it becomes fact. When it's repeated, it becomes absolute fact.'
"When you look at Uncle George's story, once the story got started, about it being in the Reynolds family, about not being real, nobody ever looked back, nobody ever said, 'Well, let's go back and start over again and see if there's something. The story just kept going, until that was what happened. People knew that was the way it was. And the story was always that he was a dealer. So they said, 'OK, he was a dealer, he probably got rid of it if he ever had it.' So many parts of it were wrong, and even though it wouldn't have been too hard to come back and trace this 'altered date' one and find it, and then maybe take a look at it, nobody ever thought of it. Once they got started in a different direction they kept going, and it never stopped."
Givens says that George Walton's collections, consisting mostly of the guns and the coins, brought a bit more than $1 million at auction. "He had quite a bit."
The tale of the recovery of the 1913 Liberty nickel from the wreckage, its later incorrect identification as a counterfeit, subsequent authentication as the "missing 1913 Liberty nickel" and its reuniting with its four siblings at the 2003 ANA World's Fair of Money in Baltimore is the legend of a master numismatic storyteller, a tale too good to be true -- but true nonetheless, a fascinating "back story" that makes the Walton 1913 Liberty nickel unique among its illustrious siblings and enhances its already enormous cachet.
The early history of the Walton 1913 Liberty nickel is shrouded in mystery. Accounts conflict on its early comings and goings, both as recounted by George Walton himself and as told by others. There is clear agreement that the Walton nickel was one of three James Kelly bought in 1943 from Burdette G. Johnson. Kelly sold the coin in that same year -- most likely for $1,000, although some other reports give $2,450, which would have been an awfully high price for the time -- to Dr. Conway A. Bolt, Jr., of Marshville, North Carolina.
From that point forward, the murk thickens. Did Walton obtain the coin directly from Bolt, or did the coin first pass to a mysterious businessman living in Winston-Salem (perhaps R.J. Reynolds, Jr., or his wife), and from there to Walton?
Although Walton told numerous tales about the 1913 Liberty nickel -- mistakenly or deliberately confusing the facts -- it appears that he acquired the coin in either 1945 or 1946 in a trade for about $3,750 worth of coins, including a Kellogg fifty dollar gold coin, from a "wealthy Winston-Salem collector." There is no documentary evidence that the Reynolds family ever owned the coin, despite an extensive hunt for records on the part of some members of the Reynolds family. The Walton coin was, nonetheless, for many years identified as the Reynolds specimen.
The provenance from the Reynolds family is the version that the Walton family nonetheless believes to be true -- as did much of the numismatic community for many years. Walter Breen's Complete Encyclopedia of U.S. and Colonial Coins, published in 1988, flatly gives the provenance after Burdette G. Johnson as "James Kelly, Numismatic Fine Arts 2:1058 (5/21/46), $2,450; Dr. Conway A. Bolt, R.J. Reynolds, Reynolds family. ... This piece was last seen with George O. Walton and has not shown up since he was killed en route to a coin show, Wilson, NC."
Givens said he "has no reason to doubt" that the coin came to his uncle from "some member of the Reynolds family."
Givens said, "Uncle George was quite the collector. He had guns, he had stamps, he collected books and Civil War memorabilia, but coins were his main focus. He was a member of a group called the National Cartridge Association, whose members collected gun cartridges. He had quite a few of those here that were auctioned off along with the guns. There were boards that held different types of gun cartridges, the companies they were from, and so forth. Uncle George was the editor of the association's journal in 1960. He wrote a little forepiece to the journal. The things that he wrote, not only for the cartridge association itself specifically but about collecting in general, these little pieces give an idea of his approach, his attitude towards collecting. He says things for the cartridge collectors, but it probably very well applies to his approach to gun collecting and coin collecting."
Walton wrote in 1960:
"I believe the greatest satisfaction realized by any collector or member is by bringing all duplicates to sell or trade so that he may acquire something to fill in those empty spaces and make his collection more attractive. I believe that by little deeds like this makes happiness with each member and collector and that's what counts."
Among Walton's many collections were multiple fifty dollar gold pieces struck in 1851 and 1852 by the U.S. Assay Office and Augustus Humbert, in 1855 by Wass-Molitor and Kellogg & Company, and in 1915 for the Panama-Pacific Exposition; diamond, colored stone, and pearl jewelry, and antique and gold watches; an extensive collection of rare paper money; a selection of Americana, books, almanacs, signed documents, and manuscripts; a wide variety of postage stamps including first day covers, postal card essays, five and ten cent 1847 issues, Confederate covers and postmasters' provisionals, and British Colonial sets; 1,850 antique guns, 500 swords, 100 canes (many with hidden guns), and 100,000 rounds of ammunition; and music boxes, china, and glassware.
A story dated Oct. 18, 1956, in the Richmond News-Leader headlined "$50 Coin Collector Started With Ordeal" began in this way: "George Walton, who says he has the world's largest collection of $50 gold pieces, won his first gold coin in a 'rasslin' match at 'big recess' when he was 12 years old." In addition to U.S. coins, Walton's collections also included a small but important group of foreign coins.
Walton's death was front-page news in Coin World, the first time a collector's passing had ever been covered on the front page. His coin collection -- minus the 1913 Liberty nickel -- was ultimately auctioned off in two parts by Stack's (June and October 1963), netting $874,837, a world record at the time. A 1930-S eagle brought $4,300; an 1849 Mormon ten dollar gold piece brought $14,000; an 1851 Dunbar & Co. five dollar brought $11,250; and an Oregon Exchange 1849 ten dollar brought $10,500. Among foreign coins, the largest price was for an English Oxford triple unite of 1642, which brought $3,400.
Givens said, "When Uncle George died, I got his dimes. My brother got the half dollars, one sister got the quarters, and another sister got the nickels. These were just low-priced mementos, odds and ends from Uncle George that my Mom [Melva Givens, George Walton's sister] got, things excluded from the Stack's auction. For so long, we thought that the 1913 Liberty nickel was a fake. [After Melva Givens died in 1992], I just had it lying around the house. I had it in a cabinet by my bed, and I would take it out and look at it. Then after 2003, when we discovered it was real, we asked the ANA if they would like to keep it at the museum and display it when they chose. They were of course glad to, and have shown it at many ANA conventions."
After the 1913 Liberty nickel that he had owned for so long was wrongly declared a counterfeit, Walton's reputation was on the decline. Many numismatists believed he had never owned the genuine article. Others believed him to be little more than a charlatan, for years passing off a fake 1913 Liberty nickel as the genuine item.
The Walton family, of course, had a different view. All those naysayers would be proven wrong in 2003, when the genuine George Walton 1913 Liberty nickel was finally reunited with its four siblings for the first time since 1943. Melva Givens, who inherited his coins in 1962, from that time until her death in 1992 never knew that the 1913 Liberty nickel she had in her possession was, in fact, genuine.
Givens said, "She saw the 1913 Liberty nickel. She had a program back from 1954 for the Roanoke Stamp and Coin Club. He had the nickel on display at the Hotel Roanoke, along with some other coins. Apparently she had gone there, and she saw it. That's one reason she was so sure that he had it. She never doubted for a minute that Uncle George had a genuine 1913 Liberty nickel. She thought, 'Well, he has this piece for display purposes, and there is a reason for it. The genuine coin is somewhere else. He had the real one somewhere.' She started looking for the real one. It would have been interesting if she had known that the real one was here, but she never doubted that he had it. If Uncle George said he had it, then he had it, my Mom believed he had it, and it was just a matter of finding out where it was."
Givens was queried if he viewed the labeling of the Walton coin as counterfeit, back in the 1960s at ANS, to be "unfortunate." His response was clearly a viewpoint that has developed over the decades. "Well, I don't look at it as unfortunate, because the way it's worked out for Uncle George has actually benefited him better than if it had sold as a real coin [back in the 1960s]. Now, as a collector, his collections are all back in the news, some 50 years after he died. Not many collectors can say that. In a way, he's coming out ahead. He's more well-known now than he would have been had the nickel been real, been sold at the [Stack's 1963] auction. People wouldn't think about him, but now he's back in the news. For a while, when people said the nickel was a fake, his reputation was brought down, but now he's come back."
Asked how he thought his Uncle George would like to be remembered, Givens said, "Uncle George was basically a self-made person. I don't think he graduated from high school. But he seemed to be a sharp person. He was known in the numismatic world as a very tough trader. It was hard to get a good deal on him. But he learned his business. So I think in his ability not only to put together a good coin collection but a good gun collection, and the other things that he was able to collect, with the resources that he had, which wasn't a whole lot, that's what I would like him to be known as: somebody who was able to go out, learn about what he was doing, get it done, and then have fun at it. He seemed to enjoy the hunt more than actually getting it, I think. He seemed to enjoy going out and finding things. Those are the things I would like him to be known as, someone who took the time to learn about his hobby, and that he did it not only for the money, but for the fun of it."
The present offering of the Walton Liberty nickel is the final vindication of George Walton and his reputation, a landmark offering of what is arguably one of the most well-known "story coins" in American numismatics.
3. Lost and Found
A Publicity Stunt That Stunned
Beginning with the auto accident that took the life of George Walton, the Walton specimen disappeared for 40 years and reemerged in a remarkable publicity campaign dubbed "The Clockwork Miracle."
George Walton made arrangements to display his famous nickel at a coin show in Wilson, North Carolina. He planned to mount an extensive exhibit of items from his collection, solely as a favor to the Wilson Coin Club. A contemporary collector, Dr. Conway Bolt, of Marshville, North Carolina, stated that Walton has as good a collection as anyone at the time, "except for a couple millionaires who won't let you tell their names."
Walton left the Ponce de Leon Hotel in Roanoke, Virginia, one of three cities that he called home, on Friday afternoon, March 9, 1962. His destination was a coin show in Wilson, North Carolina, about 200 miles to the southeast. While traveling to the show, he was involved in a horrific auto accident that took his life. The accident occurred just east of Middlesex, North Carolina, on Highway 264 at a few minutes before 7 p.m. His nickel and perhaps another $90,000 in rare coins were recovered from the accident scene and returned to his kin in Virginia.
The other car involved in the head-on collision was operated by Leona Perry. Her sister, Mae Strickland, was in the car with her; neither was seriously injured. No official record disclosed the cause of the accident, although an unofficial report placed the blame with Mrs. Perry, stating that the other driver "might not have been in full possession of [her] driving faculties."
R.E. Gilliam, the police chief for Middlesex, North Carolina, identified Walton through newspaper clippings, as well as the plastic holder that identified Walton as the owner and a past-president of MANA. Today, more than 40 years later, the Walton specimen remains in that same plastic holder. Later newspaper reports gave the value of the coins Walton carried at a quarter-million dollars, although that figure appears exaggerated.
The first policeman to arrive at the accident scene was familiar with the upcoming convention in Wilson and recognized the material as that of a prospective exhibitor, resulting in an immediate police guard at the site. Several newspaper reports have stated that the coins were "scattered across the highway," but that also is incorrect. Mr. Chester Elks was first on the scene, and he stated otherwise. The coins remained in their somewhat mangled briefcase.
Following the accident, the George O. Walton Collection was transported to Stack's in New York City, which sold the items in June 1963 and October 1963. However, the famous 1913 Liberty nickel was not among the coins that Stack's sold. Being unsure themselves, officials at Stack's took the coin to the ANS, where it was pronounced counterfeit. A planchet defect and other markings near the 3 give the distinct appearance of an altered date, although that is certainly not the case.
Fortunately, Mrs. Melva Givens, George Walton's younger sister who was born in 1913, doubted the opinion and elected to retain the coin, storing it in a closet at her home. Her son, Ryan, lives in the same Salem, Virginia, house today and was quite familiar with the coin in the closet.
It was merely supposed to be a publicity stunt to attract attention for the 2003 American Numismatic Association World's Fair of MoneySM convention in Baltimore. It did that. It also unexpectedly and excitingly solved a 41-year-old numismatic mystery: where was the long-missing fifth 1913 Liberty Head nickel? I was as stunned as everyone else that a gimmick became a game-changer.
The PR plan was simple. Arrangements were being made to display the four other 1913 Liberty nickels at that 2003 Baltimore event, so why not offer a reward for the fifth coin, which no one in the hobby had seen in decades? The offer would generate publicity for the show, and no one would have to actually shell out money because, surely, the coin wouldn't surface.
So, the PR stunt was launched in May 2003. It generated headlines nationwide, even worldwide. Fast forward to July 28, 2003, when one of George O. Walton's nephews, Ryan Givens, and one of Walton's nieces, Cheryl Myers, and her husband Gary, actually showed up at the ANA Convention with the coin that had resided in a Salem, Virginia, house closet since not long after their uncle died in a March 1962 car crash.
With an armed guard outside, eight of us huddled in the tiny office of the show manager at the Baltimore Convention Center to look at the coin: Ryan, Cheryl, and Gary; Paul Montgomery, who was making the award offer at the time on behalf of Collectors Universe; Mark Borckardt, now senior numismatist at Heritage Auctions; and numismatic human encyclopedia John "J.D." Dannreuther. Coin World editor Beth Deisher, who was instrumental in tracking down Walton's heirs, was also there. Paul, Mark, and JD took turns looking at the coin, passing it back and forth. The rest of us anxiously waited. Beth later said it looked like I was levitating as I nervously rocked up and down on my toes.
A secret midnight meeting then was arranged for other experts to view the coin alongside the four other 1913 Liberty nickels scheduled to go on display the next morning -- their first time together in over 60 years. Paul, Mark, and JD, along with PCGS cofounder David Hall, Fred Weinberg, and Jeff Garrett made the midnight examination.
I patiently waited with Ryan, Cheryl, Gary, and Associated Press reporter Sarah Brumfield outside the security room. Ryan and Cheryl explained about the nickel being mistakenly declared a fake after their uncle's death, and how Walton's sister -- their mother, Melva Givens -- kept it for decades in a closet. I'd spent 30 years as a journalist and broadcaster and I thought to myself, "This is one of the most amazing stories I've ever encountered!"
After about 40 minutes, I was summoned to the security room door, where Paul met me and said, "It's real. What should we do now?" I replied, "You should tell the family," and I brought over Ryan, Cheryl, and Gary to hear the good news.
I quickly shot photos of the nickel and the exhausted but happy authenticators, then phoned Beth, who was waiting for my late-night call to file a story online for Coin World. My first words when she answered were, "The Eagle has landed," borrowing an iconic phrase from the first moon landing mission.
Over the next nine years I happily assisted with publicity when the Walton nickel was displayed across the country. It always attracted an appreciative crowd. I'm sure its new owner will appreciate it, too. There's a lot of history behind a nickel now in the spotlight that spent much of the 20th century hidden in a closet.
4. The Walton Nickel Reemerges
Serendipity, chance, fate, and a host of synonyms all apply when describing the sequence of events and the force that seemed to be hurtling all involved on a trajectory that culminated July 30, 2003, with the declaration that the 1913 Liberty Head nickel deemed an altered date more than 40 years earlier was indeed genuine and the long-missing fifth specimen.
If the story of the Walton 1913 Liberty nickel ever appears on the silver screen, my entrance would be in early January 2003. I was on the bourse of the Florida United Numismatists show in Orlando when I received word that Laura Sperber of Legend Numismatics had some news to announce. The news turned out to be that she and her partners, George Huang and Bruce Morelan, had purchased the 1913 Liberty Head nickel once owned by Reed Hawn and the same specimen that had appeared in an episode of "Hawaii Five-O." Near the end of the short interview, Laura said she planned to exhibit the rarity at the summer American Numismatic Association convention in Baltimore, which I included in the story published in the Jan. 27 issue of Coin World.
It would be nearly three months before the subject of 1913 Liberty nickels would again appear on my "radar screen."
In the late afternoon of March 19, I helped to set up the Coin World booth on the bourse of the spring ANA show in Charlotte, North Carolina, and promised to meet several Coin World staff members across from a sports bar off the main lobby of the hotel where we were staying. I arrived first and was seated at a table when I looked up and saw Steve Bobbitt, ANA public relations director, and Donn Pearlman, veteran radio newsman turned PR pro, walking toward me engaged in conversation. As they approached, I greeted them with, "What's new?"
They joined me at the table and shared that they had been discussing the fact that ANA had learned through reading Coin World that Sperber intended to exhibit Legend's recently acquired 1913 Liberty nickel at the Baltimore ANA. At that point they were thinking of using the 1913 Liberty Head nickels as a PR theme to attract attention and public attendance for the ANA Baltimore show. The Bebee specimen in ANA's museum would make two. Donn said he thought Dwight Manley would agree to display the Eliasberg specimen he had acquired in 2001. As he was speaking the thought, Donn was on his cell phone to Manley. I could not hear Manley's response, but could tell from the big smile on Pearlman's face it was a done deal. "Got it!" Pearlman reported as he shut off his phone.
"Why don't we try to get them all together?" I blurted out.
Pearlman and Bobbitt looked at each in amazement and exclaimed simultaneously, "Why didn't we think of that!"
The fourth specimen was in the Smithsonian's National Numismatic Collection. I had seen it on a number of occasions during visits and interviews with the NNC staff. I volunteered to make some calls to explore whether the Smithsonian would allow its specimen (donated by Mrs. Emery May Norweb) to travel from Washington, D.C., to Baltimore for display. I was aware of the Smithsonian's strict policies and knew there would be a ton of red tape to cut through. Bobbitt and Pearlman said getting the fourth 1913 Liberty nickel to Baltimore would be my "assignment."
Upon return from the FUN show, I contacted NNC Collections Manager Douglas Mudd. He was supportive and enthusiastic but warned it would be a miracle to get approval within three months, the tight timeframe in which we had to work our way through the Smithsonian bureaucracy.
I kept in touch with Pearlman and Bobbitt, updating them on progress and often lack of progress on the Smithsonian's 1913 Liberty nickel. During one of the conversations in mid-May, Pearlman revealed that he had talked with senior management at Bowers and Merena/Collectors Universe about offering a reward for the missing fifth specimen. He was pretty sure the reward would be up to $1 million, but he noted that this was background information and Coin World could not publish anything about it at that point. About a week later, Pearlman called back to say the reward would be offered and that he had guaranteed the Associated Press an exclusive. The wire service would be breaking the story. He would provide me with a copy of his press release announcing the search for the "lost" coin, but Coin World would have to agree to an embargo until the AP broke the story. I was disappointed that Coin World would not get to break the story, but I understood that the AP story would reach a far wider audience. Pearlman transmitted the embargoed news release via fax and called to confirm receipt. He told me that he had given my name to AP reporter David Tirrell-Wysocki, who might call. About two hours later, Tirrell-Wysocki called. He asked lots of questions, and we talked for about 20 minutes. I asked if he knew when his story would be on the wire. He was not sure but suggested that in all likelihood it would be sometime during the Memorial Day weekend.
Tirrell-Wysocki's story moved on the AP wire on Memorial Day, Monday, May 26. Coin World's offices were closed for the holiday. I arrived at the office early on Tuesday and was greeted at the door by the customer service manager. "Our phones are ringing off the hook! Every voice-mail box is jammed!"
It seemed like every person in the entire world was sure he or she had the missing 1913 Liberty nickel. "Just about every person who calls wants to talk with you," she added.
"Why me?" I thought. Then it dawned on me. I had probably been quoted in the AP story. I did a quick search online and found the story.
I quickly wrote out a script for the main phone operator, customer service representatives, and Coin World staff to use. It said that Coin World did not authenticate coins and provided information about contacting professional grading services. I added a note at the bottom of the script instructing them to put calls from the media through to me.
In addition to the main story about the reward being offered, Coin World staff began working on a story about the public interest and reaction to the AP story. We learned that Bowers and Merena, ANA, all the grading services, and just about every coin shop throughout the nation was being flooded with calls and people walking in the door with what they believed to be the missing coin. I fielded calls from newspaper reporters, radio talk show hosts, and TV producers. Even the BBC in London called to arrange for me to do a live interview at 3 a.m. from my home!
Toward the end of the week, phone calls began to taper off. When the operator told me a reporter from the Roanoke Times was on the line, I was keen to talk with him. In 1993, when the ANA had offered a $10,000 reward in its search for the missing coin, Richard Giedroyc of our staff had interviewed Arthur Smith, the attorney who had worked with the George Walton estate, and Lucille Walton, the wife of George's deceased brother. Giedroyc had inquired regarding the whereabouts of the 1913 Liberty nickel that had been retrieved from the accident scene where George Walton had been killed in 1962 and later proclaimed to be an altered date. However, he had been unsuccessful in locating the coin. Both Smith and Lucille Walton said they did not know its whereabouts. When I had researched the pedigrees of the five 1913 nickels in 2001 in preparation for writing scripts for Dwight Manley's "Las Vegas" style traveling exhibit featuring the Eliasberg specimen, I had again tried to find the "altered-date" Walton coin. But the trail always seemed to dead-end in Roanoke, Virginia.
Mason Adams, the Roanoke Times reporter, said he was preparing a local-angle story to follow the AP story about the search for the missing nickel. He had a number of questions and I agreed to fax to him copies of stories that Coin World had published during the years about 1913 Liberty Head nickels, particularly those with information (usually speculation) about the missing coin.
Adams' story was published in the Sunday, June 16, issue of the Roanoke Times. When I arrived at work on the 17th, I found a copy of the story that Adams had sent to me by fax. After reading it, I called to congratulate him on the excellent story, especially because it revealed that George Walton's nephew, who lived in the Roanoke area, had the "altered-date" coin. I immediately asked if Adams would provide me with the nephew's name and phone number. Adams explained that he had agreed not to use the nephew's name in his story and that he could not provide a phone number without his permission. So I asked Adams if he would relay my desire to speak with the nephew and provide him a toll-free number he could use to call me. Adams agreed.
Several days passed. I had almost given up hope when the phone rang and a man identified himself as Ryan Givens, George Walton's nephew. I confirmed that he had the "altered-date" coin in his possession and then told him about the "grand reunion" plan. I noted that since the "altered-date" Walton coin was part of the 1913 Liberty Head nickel story, too, it should be part of the exhibit.
Givens said through the years he had often taken the coin out and looked at it. He said he had compared it to photographs of other 1913 Liberty Head nickels when they had been in the headlines. He said he had also thought about having some experts look at it again. I told him that bringing the coin to Baltimore for the exhibit would present a great opportunity. "The top experts in the world will all be under one roof," I said, trying to offer an incentive for allowing his coin to be exhibited. He said he would think about it. I noted that since ANA was preparing the exhibit, they would need to know about the possibility of his coin being part of the display and suggested that he contact ANA Curator Larry Lee. I also asked if he had a close-up picture of the coin. He said he was making arrangements to have a better picture taken and would send me a copy.
After my conversation with Givens, I alerted ANA and Pearlman about the possibility of having the "altered-date" specimen for the display in Baltimore. They thought it was a great idea.
Meanwhile, it seemed I was on the phone with Smithsonian officials almost daily. I left for vacation June 28. Upon return July 7, I quickly sorted through messages and mail on my desk. Nothing from Givens. On July 10 I noticed a large manilla envelope under the previous week's issue of Coin World on my credenza. It was addressed to me, marked PERSONAL. Someone had separated it from the mail on my desk, but it had later been covered by the week's issue before I returned. Opening the envelope, I found two 8-by-10 black-and-white photographs, an obverse and reverse of a 1913 Liberty Head nickel with a short note attached from Givens. My heart skipped a beat. I walked straight into Bill Gibbs' office and handed him the photographs. A longtime Coin World staff member, Gibbs had also extensively researched and written about the 1913 Liberty Head nickels. We agreed. If the coin was not genuine, it was the best fake we had ever seen!
I placed a call to Givens and had to leave a message on his voice mail. He called later in the day. He told me he had talked with Lee, but he had not made a final decision regarding Baltimore. He said he was scheduled to work the week of the ANA show. I thanked him for the pictures and related my and Gibbs' reaction upon seeing the pictures. "I'd like to go to Baltimore, but ..." his voice trailed off. I countered: "Don't you have a couple of days of vacation you could take?" He ended the conversation saying he would see if he could get some vacation days.
I continued to be focused on getting the Smithsonian specimen to Baltimore. It was looking promising, but we still did not have confirmation. A couple of days went by. The phone rang. It was Pearlman. Givens had notified ANA he would bring the coin to Baltimore. Pearlman and Lee were making arrangement for experts to look at the coin. Even if it were deemed to be an altered date, it would still be a part of the grand reunion exhibit. Finally, Smithsonian officials called to say everyone had signed off on the approval for its coin to be in the exhibit.
The grand reunion of the four genuine specimens was going to happen! Plus, the Walton altered-date would be there.
I changed my flight in order to arrive in Baltimore the evening of July 28. Givens said he and two other members of his family would meet us (Pearlman and me) in the lobby of the Baltimore Convention Center around 11 a.m. on Tuesday, July 29.
They were on time. Givens, his sister Cheryl Myers and her husband, Gary, walked through the main entrance and paged Donn. I had been watching the entrance and saw that one of the men was carrying a small package. Donn and I greeted them, and we headed to the small office just off the lobby area that had been designated for the meeting. Donn suggested that I wait with them while he summoned the experts -- Paul Montgomery, Mark Borckardt, and John Dannreuther.
Once the door was closed, Donn introduced everyone and Givens opened a small, padded manilla envelope. The coin was encased in a custom-made black plastic holder with gold lettering.
Montgomery was the first to look at the coin. He was poker-faced. After several minutes he handed the coin to Borckardt. I had been snapping pictures. I wanted to document every phase of this session. I had my camera with telephoto lens trained on Borckardt's face. He was looking at the coin with a loupe and holding it close to his eye. I detected a change in his skin coloring. It was as if the blood had instantly drained from his face. That was my first clue that we were on the cusp of a history-making moment. Borckardt passed the coin to Dannreuther, who examined the coin for a couple of minutes. The three of them huddled and whispered. I could not hear what they were saying. Each seemed calm. They maintained their poker faces. They would continue passing the coin back and forth to each other with several huddles for about another 15 minutes.
Finally, Borckardt broke the silence. He declared he was "98 percent certain this is real." Montgomery and Dannreuther quickly agreed. They noted that there would be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity later in the evening. All of the coins were to be displayed at a special exhibit in Maryland that evening and would then be brought back to the Convention Center in preparation for opening of the exhibit and show Wednesday morning. They would like to compare the coin to the other four genuine coins before going public with a declaration of genuineness.
Before leaving the room, all assembled agree to a vow of silence.
Montgomery arranged to place the coin in his company's vault, where it would be kept until it was transferred to the exhibit case in Maryland. He, Borckardt, and Dannreuther returned to the bourse, where Professional Numismatists Guild trading activity was under way. Pearlman left to work on arrangements for a late-night authentication session.
I walked out of the room with Givens and Cheryl and Gary Myers. I knew I would be writing a story, regardless of the final outcome of the authentication session, and it would be good to have more information about them and the Walton family. They seemed a little "lost." Looking back, they were probably in a state of shock, realizing that they were within hours of a final decision. Since the lunch concession was opening in the lobby area, I asked if they would like to join me for lunch. They quickly said "yes," and for the next two hours we sat and talked about their family, especially their Uncle George.
It quickly became apparent that vindicating Uncle George as the owner of the genuine coin was far more important to them than whatever money may come their way some day.
Cheryl also worried aloud about security, if the coin were declared genuine. I suggested that they should talk to the ANA. If they would agree to loan the coin to the ANA museum for exhibit, ANA would take care of security, especially when transporting it.
Lee had finagled an invitation for them to attend the gala reception at Diamond International Galleries in Timonium, Maryland, that evening. I saw them there and snapped a picture of three of them peering in the exhibit case at the four genuine specimens.
Pearlman informed me upon arrival at Diamond International that he had contacted AP and again guaranteed them an exclusive at the later authentication session. Since AP would be the only media allowed in, I knew that no other numismatic publication would have the story I would have.
"That's OK," I assured Pearlman. "All I need is a phone call from you to let me know the decision. I will not transmit my story until after 5 a.m. tomorrow morning."
I returned from the Diamond International reception and stopped to talk with friends sitting in a bar just off the hotel lobby, never once letting on to what had transpired that day. I left the conversation around 11:30 p.m., with the excuse that it had been a long day and that I would need to be up early tomorrow. I arrived at my room and began writing my Coin World story on my trusty laptop. My story was nearly complete except for the lead when Pearlman called just before 1 a.m.
"The eagle has landed. It's genuine!" Pearlman said. Our conversation was short. He had work to do and so did I.
I was on the phone waiting in the lobby of the Baltimore Convention Center Wednesday morning, July 30, when ANA Executive Director Christopher Cipoletti announced during opening ceremonies for the show that the Walton specimen had been authenticated as genuine.
"It's public. Post the story," I told Gibbs back at the office. And within a minute my story was posted at Coin World's web site.
5. Authenticating the Walton Specimen
Mark Borckardt, John Dannreuther, Jeff Garrett, David Hall, Paul Montgomery, and Fred Weinberg
The Sheraton-Oak Brook Motor Hotel was the site of the 10th Annual PNG Coin Show, held on October 19, 20, and 21, 1973. World-Wide Coin Investments, Ltd., from Atlanta made arrangements to display three rarities -- an 1804 silver dollar, an 1894-S Barber dime, and the Olsen specimen 1913 Liberty nickel. Attending that show from Findlay, Ohio, was a young numismatist named Mark Borckardt. I made the 270-mile drive with my father, attending the show as a visitor, since a small part-time coin business was clearly insufficient to support a bourse table.
In my mind I can still see the three coins that were housed in their oversized white plastic holders, including the 1913 Liberty nickel. Never did I think at the time that I would be handling multiple specimens of that famous rarity. It was worth $100,000 at a time when the purchase and sale of a $100 coin was an important transaction for a fledgling coin dealer. I had just entered the 11th grade and celebrated my 16th birthday the previous Saturday. It was 23 years later that I first handled a 1913 Liberty nickel while grading and researching coins for the Louis Eliasberg coin auction slated for May 1996.
Seven years afterward, I was one of six numismatists who sat at a table, late at night (actually, early in the morning), with all five 1913 Liberty nickels available for close scrutiny. I would have never dreamed of such an occurrence when I saw that first example in 1973. Now yet a decade later, 40 years since seeing my first 1913 Liberty nickel, I recall the six of us passing all five nickels back and forth, as the guards from the Smithsonian Institution grew ever more frustrated. They were responsible for their coin and moved with the coin, back and forth, never losing sight of their precious nickel.
There is no doubt that the authentication session with all five known 1913 Liberty nickels ranks at the top of my list of career highlights, even more important than the opportunity to catalog two Brasher doubloons simultaneously, or even the examination of the finest existing 1804 silver dollar. Numismatists often suggest that clandestine issues, such as various restrikes of the 1850s and 1860s, were the work of "midnight minters," so it seems appropriate that the authentication team met shortly after midnight to examine the five 1913 Liberty nickels.
ANA conventions are always greeted with great anticipation by collectors and dealers alike. I went to the 2003 Baltimore ANA with a bit more excitement than some other conventions, having been contacted by Donn Pearlman a week or two before the show. Donn said that the Walton family was bringing their "1913 Liberty Head nickel" to the show to try and claim the $10,000 reward offered by Bowers and Merena to the presenter of the missing fifth example. Owning seven altered-date 1913 nickels, showing the family examples of what coin dealers usually saw when they were told that someone had the elusive fifth example would let them down easy, I thought, if theirs turned out to be an altered date. I even had a phone call in the past with someone who said that they knew there were six of them, as they had it! Oh, boy!
I did have a slight advantage over some of the other numismatists who would be asked to help authenticate the Walton coin, if our initial examination deemed it worthy of further inspection. I had been emailed a picture of the Walton coin by Beth Deisher of Coin World a week before the show. I had examined the picture and concluded that either it was real or the best alteration in existence! The quality of the work was incredible, if it was an alteration. If it was a chased or added digit, they got the odd-looking 3 right, just as it is seen on genuine examples. Still, I figured, as did most numismatists, that Stack's had gotten it right in 1963 and this was an altered date. The real one had been misplaced or lost on the North Carolina highway the March 1962 night George Walton died in a car crash.
When Donn Pearlman told me Tuesday morning of the ANA that the coin was there, I gathered my altered-date hoard and headed to the small room that had been arranged for our viewing. Paul Montgomery, Mark Borckardt, and I were introduced to the members of the Walton family and said our hellos to the others present, including Donn Pearlman and Beth Deisher. Paul looked at the coin first, and when he handed it to me, I realized that it might be real because of its "look." Coin people are quite fond of saying (especially about gold coins) that a particular coin either looks "right" or looks "wrong" when authenticating an example. Those unfamiliar with this process will often ask what looks right or wrong about a coin, but sometimes that is difficult to verbalize.
Having seen the other four 1913 Liberty nickels, I knew that they had a particular look, because they are the only Liberty Head nickels struck from proof dies on unpolished blanks. Proof Liberty nickels have a certain look that distinguishes them from their circulation strike counterparts, but the 1913 Liberty Head nickels look like a hybrid of the two, neither fish nor fowl. Thus, I initially thought to myself that "this coin is real." My heart sank, however, when I examined it with a magnifier. There was an area of porosity right in the middle of the 3 of the date that when found on a coin almost always indicates heating, alteration, and then smoothing over of the affected area.
Still, the more I looked at the coin, the more I was convinced it was real. I decided that the porous area was on the planchet when it was struck, as these were unpolished blanks, of course. All five 1913 Liberty Head nickels have tiny features such as porosity, small planchet flaws, and so on. The porosity unfortunately happened to be right in the middle of the "money" digit. This porosity likely was the main factor that led to Stack's conclusion in 1963 that this was an altered date. However, we knew that the other four 1913 Liberty Head nickels were in Baltimore for display at the ANA. A meeting was arranged to examine them to compare to the Walton nickel and erase all doubt about its legitimacy -- or declare it an altered date, once and for all.
As we adjourned our little gathering, Paul, Mark, and I told the family that we were 98 percent certain that their coin was real, but would want to compare it to the other four. David Hall, Jeff Garrett, and Fred Weinberg were also enlisted to help authenticate the coin. There was a problem with the timing, as the four 1913 nickels were being shown at a reception that evening and would not be available until late that night, as the next day there were to be placed in the exhibit area of the ANA. We had to have a late-night get-together or we would have to look at the coins in an exhibit case. Some of us arranged to meet in the lobby of the Hyatt Regency that night and proceed to the Convention Center to examine the five coins. I headed back to the coin show and only told my daughter Paige what had just transpired. I also told her that I thought it was real, and that I had not even shown the Walton family the seven altered-date coins that were in my pocket.
After the show we had our usual evening meal, but I still told none of my friends what had transpired that morning. Even though the three of us had agreed it was likely real, we wanted to be certain before telling the numismatic world that the fifth 1913 Liberty Head nickel had been located. Around 11 p.m., I saw David Hall checking in to the Hyatt, and he joined us as we walked over to the Convention Center for the meeting. Inside the room was a table with the four 1913 nickels and the Walton example waiting for us. The National Numismatic Collection example was there, of course, along with two stone-faced Mint security guards, whose gaze never left the NNC coin. Millions of dollars' worth of coins was on the table, so their attention was riveted on the government's example.
One by one, we each examined the five coins. After scrutinizing, the group almost in unison announced that the Walton example indeed was real. We then started discussing aloud the reasons that we came to this conclusion. Fred Weinberg noted the ejection lines on their edges were very similar, while I noted that the variation in strike on the reverse corn could probably indicate the striking order. They ranged from full corn, with kernels very sharp, to almost no kernels present on a nearly flattened ear. The theory I presented was that in the haste to strike the five coins, the minter had not fully tightened the dies into the press. As the coins were struck, the dies loosened and the strikes became progressively weaker.
After another few minutes of discussion, the group disbanded, each heading to their hotel room after a very full day at the ANA! It was difficult to fall asleep for me, as there are few moments in your life that present you with such a momentous opportunity. Looking back on the experience, it felt like a dream or a movie. The authentication of the missing 1913 Liberty nickel was truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience, a cliché that rings true this time!
The 2003 ANA Convention in Baltimore was already a memorable one for me before I received the call from Paul Montgomery to stop by his table. During the Professional Numismatists Guild bourse that day, I had bought and sold several great coins, and business was fantastic. I was excited to be in Baltimore for what would prove to be one of the most exciting ANA Conventions ever. I had no idea how exciting it could actually be. When I approached the table of Bowers and Merena, Paul asked if I could help him with something. After telling him that I would be happy to help, he said "I think we have a winner." I immediately knew what he was talking about. Bowers and Merena had come up with what I thought was a publicity stunt. They were offering a $10,000 reward for anyone who could produce the famed 1913 Liberty nickel for authentication. Paul told me the story of how they believed that the missing 1913 nickel had been found, and he asked if I would be part of the team to authenticate the coin. Talk about honored. I could not say "yes" fast enough! Paul told me that a meeting had been set up to examine the coin around midnight after the annual PNG banquet.
During the awards banquet, I was deeply honored to have been given the Abe Kosoff Founders Award for contributions to the Guild and the numismatic fraternity. Ironically, I was presented the award by Paul Montgomery, who had served on the board of the PNG with me for several years. The night only got better when I also received the Robert Friedberg Literary Award for my book 100 Greatest U.S. Coins. Normally, these incredible honors would have been all that was occupying my thoughts. But in the back of my mind, I could not help but think of the excitement to come.
Later that night, around midnight, I received a call to meet at the Convention Center for the authentication session. Normally I would be very tired by then, but the adrenaline kept me wide awake. After being let into the Convention Center, I met with the others who had been asked to attend. I spoke with Paul and John Dannreuther about my concern of being asked to authenticate such a high-profile coin. I asked if anyone had done a background check on the family who had shown up with the coin. For a million dollars, con men can be pretty creative. I was assured that the family was who they said they were, and after meeting them, my doubts were quickly alleviated. The family was as genuine as the coin proved to be.
Because of the event held earlier in the evening and in an effort to draw crowds to the show, the four known examples of the 1913 Liberty nickel were all in Baltimore. When the team of authenticators sat down at the conference table, all five 1913 Liberty nickels were together for the first time in 60 years. I had seen all four of the known coins at one time or another, but not together. I was extremely curious about the state of preservation of the Walton nickel. I wondered if the coin was an obvious proof, or some sort of hybrid, which those others appear to be. I wanted to examine the fabric of the coin and examine for any signs of tampering. I looked closely at the 3 and did a careful side-by-side comparison of all five coins. It was not long before any doubts were erased. Based on the coin's pedigree and all physical evidence, the team quickly came to the conclusion that we were all looking at the fifth 1913 Liberty nickel that had been missing for decades! It was a dream night for me that I will always cherish.
We came up with the idea to offer a $10,000 reward just to see the "missing" 1913 Liberty nickel. When we made the announcement of the reward, we had no idea that someone would actually have the coin. Like everyone else, we assumed it was lost. But when I got the word that the Walton heirs supposedly had the coin, I figured there was a good shot it truly was the real missing coin. I arrived at the show very late at night and was one of the last of the expert team to actually see the coin. My level of anticipation was sky-high, of course. The minute I saw the coin, I knew it was real. After I examined it closely under magnification, we took a poll of the experts, just to be sure. We all thought it was unquestionably the real thing. And we were fortunate enough to have the other four known specimens in the room with us, since they were being displayed at the show. The discovery and authentication of the Walton 1913 Liberty nickel is definitely one of the highlights of my career, a dream come true! I was in the same room with all five examples of the most famous U.S. coin. I was in the same room as some of the most knowledgeable coin experts of all time, all of us participating in an event for the ages.
Moments after we initially examined the coin, Mark Borckardt, John Dannreuther, and I realized the coin was indeed genuine; I began to panic a bit. Now what do we do? I knew I wasn't ready to "officially" declare the coin was authentic. After all, I had a million bucks at stake, and I was still trying to wrap my head around what had just happened to us. We were sitting in a storage closet, for Pete's sake! This is not where you declare a find like this!
I'm not sure whose idea it was, but the realization that the other four coins were at the show gave me my out. It simply made sense to pull in a few of my friends so we could make an absolute declaration of the coin's authenticity. With my best poker face on, I told the family that I was "pretty sure" this was the real deal but wanted to be 100 percent sure before any announcement was made.
It was with a very shaky hand that I wrote out a merchandise receipt and walked away with a multimillion-dollar coin. I was really surprised at the time that after knowing the family for only a few minutes, they were willing to let me walk away with their coin. I decided the more secure place for it (until I could assemble the team) was in the safe behind our table at the convention. (Funny sidebar is that my staff worked in and out of that safe all day long with zero knowledge the coin was in there. I have caught a lot of grief over the years because of that one, but it was absolutely essential that we kept the discovery a secret until we could assemble the team.)
Assembling the team: My choices seemed obvious. First, Mark Borckardt is among of the finest numismatists in the history of the hobby and was my executive vice president. John Dannreuther was my mentor in my early years and taught me much of what I know of numismatics. They were a lock to be part of the team. Next, David Hall clearly needed to be there. A world-class coin grader and the cofounder of PCGS, David was an asset to the team. Next, I solicited the help of two trusted friends, Fred Weinberg and Jeff Garrett. Beside the fact that I trusted each, both Fred and Jeff have credentials that far outclass 99 percent of our industry participants. What a team! What a blast!
Fred and Jeff were kind of fun, because at first I didn't want to tell them about the coin. I was very coy while asking them if they would join me at midnight for "something special." Both of them pushed back a little until I capitulated and shared the story of the morning's discovery. The actual authentication was the easy part. Mark, JD, and I were already convinced of the coin's genuineness, and we knew in our hearts that Jeff, Fred, and David would know beyond a doubt, too. Even then, it took us 45 minutes to be absolutely certain. We were like kids with a new toy. Each of us had something different to contribute and we "played" for much, much longer than we needed to. We got to a stopping point and David polled us out loud, starting with me. I replied "genuine," as did everyone else. History was made. It was the greatest moment of my career, and I will never forget it.
Being part of the team that authenticated the missing Walton 1913 nickel was, and still is, one of the absolute highlights of my 41-year career in numismatics. The late-morning conversation with Paul Montgomery on PNG Day, waiting through the day and through the PNG Banquet, and the midnight walk across the street are still sharp in my mind. I had never participated in something so exciting, so different, so significant, so late at night! I'd like to talk a bit about my contribution to the event that night.
Right after the team had unanimously declared the authenticity of the Walton nickel, and electricity was still in the air, I took a deep breath to try to absorb what we had just done -- and I quickly realized that in addition to declaring the nickel genuine, we had not only the other four known specimens right before us, but that three of them were "raw" and uncertified as far as being encapsulated in plastic holders.
The three "raw" coins were the Smithsonian nickel, the ANA coin, and of course the Walton specimen. Here was a chance to examine the edge of three of the coins at the same time -- the first time in about 60 years that all five coins were back together, and possibly the very last time it would be possible to do what I was thinking -- examine the "plain edge" of the coins. When I mentioned this to the others at the table, they didn't at first get what I was talking about -- a plain edge was a plain edge, after all!
However, due to my experience and knowledge of the minting process, I knew that even plain-edge coins would have evidence of being struck in a collar -- what I called "ballistic lines" that were fine, vertical marks on the edge, caused by being ejected from a collar that held the planchets. These lines would be similar to those ballistic marks that are on a bullet as it exits the chamber of a gun.
Asking permission, and then slowly and carefully gathering the three "raw" coins in my hand, I aligned them so that the dates of all three coins were in the same position as I held them on the edge; then I took a close look with my magnifying glass and proceeded to look for those matching "ballistic lines" on the edges of the three coins.
It wasn't that I was surprised to find them, it was that I immediately knew that by finding these lines, I was able to proclaim that all three "raw" coins -- and in all probability the other two also -- were indeed struck at the same time in the same collar. If these fine lines on the edge did not match, it might have meant that they were struck at different times, possibly using different collars, rather than the accepted "late night" striking for all of them in one event.
Finding these fine line marks in the exact same place on the edges of the three coins confirmed what was thought to be true, and was the last time that such a comparison would be able to be conducted. I'm glad I thought of it at the time -- and that it might be an important aspect of these coins in the future.
My thanks to all involved 10 years ago -- and for the opportunity to be able to say that not only was I one of a select few numismatists to examine all five 1913 Liberty nickels at the same time, but also hold three of them in my hand at the same time!
6. The Nickel Reunion
In April 2003 the headquarters of the ANA was buzzing with preparations for the reunion of the four 1913 Liberty head nickels at our Baltimore show in July. As director of the Money Museum, I was tasked with designing a traveling exhibit for the coins as well as coordinating the loan of the Smithsonian's specimen of the nickel.
Things were moving forward relatively smoothly until May 23, when Paul Montgomery and Bowers and Merena made the announcement they would pay $1 million for the missing Reynolds specimen of the 1913 nickel. While Montgomery did not really believe the missing nickel would emerge, all agreed it was a brilliant publicity campaign for both the ANA and Bowers and Merena.
However, because of the law of unintended consequences, Montgomery's announcement instantly set off a barrage of thousands of phone calls from people who believed they owned the missing nickel. At the time, the association still offered a counterfeit detection service, so even though the ANA did not receive as many phone calls as Bowers and Merena, we still fielded hundreds of calls coming in to that phone line, which rang at my desk.
Thus, while everyone else was pleased with the excitement of the offer, I was personally irritated with all of the nickel hoopla, as it dramatically increased my workload at a time when I was trying to work on the four genuine 1913 nickels, not deal with hundreds of fake ones. My desk always seemed to be covered with scores of pink phone messages from irate callers wanting to know where they could pick up the money for their nickel.
In returning the calls, I always started with the assumption that the nickel under discussion was a fake. My only task was to educate the owner as to why their nickel wasn't the real one. In doing so, I developed a pretty short checklist of diagnostics to look for in spotting a real coin versus a counterfeit. Basically, there was only one thing on the checklist: the shape of the 3 in the date.
On genuine 1913 Liberty nickels (and I use the term advisedly), the number 3 punch used does not match any other typeface used by the U. S. Mint on any other coin date. The original punch was hand-cut and is uniquely identifiable. Conversely, virtually every unsophisticated counterfeit 1913 nickel is made from an altered date of a genuine issue. Usually 1910-dated coins were used, but also 1912 and a few other dates; metal was pushed around and a new date created from an old.
The ANA had over 50 different fake 1913 Liberty nickels at the time, so it was not a new phenomenon. On the bright side, every altered-date coin was likewise unique unto itself, and thus the number 3 in altered-date specimens could be a lot of different shapes, but it would never match every curve and serif and line of a the real 3. Once people compared a photo of a genuine coin with their own, they could see the difference and many were grateful for the numismatic lesson. Many, not all.
In late May, one of my pink telephone messages said to call a reporter from the Roanoke Times by the name of Mason Adams. When I reached Adams, he asked if it would be a big deal if the long-lost Reynolds nickel was found. I assured him it would be a huge event in the world of coins, a modern-day treasure story. He thought he might have some leads there in the Virginia area he would check out. I told him what little I knew of the situation and told him he might want to call Beth Deisher, the editor of Coin World.
Little did I know this telephone call would set off a flurry of other calls that eventually linked me with the owners of the Reynolds-Walton nickel. For Deisher provided Adams with new clues on the ownership of the missing nickel, through which he was eventually able to reach the Walton family. And the Walton family had the 1913 Liberty Head nickel that was deemed a fake after the death of their uncle, George Walton.
In June 2003 I received a call at the ANA from Ryan Givens, who said his uncle was a coin collector who was killed in a car wreck, that his uncle had at one time owned a 1913 Liberty nickel, and that the family still had the coin and wanted to know if it was genuine. Beth Deisher at Coin World had told them to call me. Could I help?
Now, of course, my assumption was that this is yet another altered date 1913 nickel. I thought the inclusion of a car wreck showed a little more historical research than most of the other claims of provenance I had heard -- and dropping Beth Deisher's name also counted for a few points. So I was at least polite in telling Ryan I would be happy to take a look at his coin if he would send me a scan.
After a little more discussion (including the fact that Ryan used to keep the coin next to his bed at night), Ryan called his sister, Cheryl Myers. He said Cheryl was the most computer-savvy in the family, and since she would also be the one taking the scans of the coin, I should just talk with her directly.
Cheryl and I hit it off immediately. She and Ryan had studied the nickel for years and felt sure it was genuine. She was not going to be lightly dismissed. In her soft Virginia accent, she told me the most important thing was that George Walton's name was vindicated: He claimed he owned such a nickel, and the family knew he was not a man to lie. The family didn't care about the money: They cared about George's reputation.
Within a few days, Cheryl sent me some photos of the Walton coin. I thought it looked promising, but of the five people I initially showed the photos to in Colorado Springs, only one thought there was any chance the date looked right.
I had the ANA specimen of the nickel to look at, and I also had high-resolution photographs of the other three genuine nickels to compare. It seemed to me that not only was the date right, but the denticles lined up under the date in exactly the same spot on all five coins.
In the final weeks leading up to the Baltimore show, I was emailing and talking with Cheryl almost daily about her nickel. I would ask her a question about some detail of her nickel, or she would ask me a question about our nickel, and we would compare notes. According to our trail of emails, on July 21, just a few days before the Baltimore show was to open, I ask her to look at the ears of corn on the coin's reverse. She told me that her heart dropped because she saw they were fuzzy, mushy in detail. I didn't tell her at the time that the lack of detail in the corn was actual one of the last diagnostics on my list. We had worked one by one through them all -- and the Walton coin had passed every one.
Since that time, several other definitive characteristics of genuine 1913 nickels have been found, including a wire rim that shifts between coins, and ejection marks on the coin's edge. Also, if we had access to Eric Newman's notes from when he owned the coin, we would have focused on a small dot on Liberty's neck opposite the hanging curl, a detail he noted when he owned the coin.
The thing about authentication is that it is often easy to tell a fake: A single missed diagnostic like a blobbed 3 can instantly destroy a coin's credibility.
But to authenticate a coin, to prove that it is genuine, usually takes some time and several sets of eyes. A genuine coin must pass multiple tests (weight, specific gravity, die characteristics, etc.) before it can be authentica (NGC ID# 278P, PCGS# 3912)
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