Rare nickel – 40 years in closet – fetches $3.1 million

Rare nickel is one of only five 1913 Liberty head nickels. Before selling for more than $3.1 million Thursday, the rare nickel was involved in a car accident, forgotten for four decades, and declared a fake. 

Patrick Kunzer/Daily Herald/AP
This 1913 Liberty Head Nickel – one of only five known to exist – was auctioned Thursday, April 25, 2013, in Schaumburg, Ill. The rare nickel was sold for more than $3.1 million.

A rare century-old U.S. nickel that was once mistakenly declared a fake and forgotten about for decades has sold at auction for more than $3.1 million.

The 1913 Liberty Head nickel is one of only five known to exist. But it's all the more prized because of its unusual back story: It was surreptitiously and illegally cast, discovered in a car wreck that killed its owner, declared a fake, forgotten in a closet for decades and then declared the real deal.

It was offered up for sale Thursday by four Virginia siblings at a rare coin and currency auction in the Chicago suburb of Schaumburg where it sold for well over the expected $2.5 million.

The winning bidders were two men from Lexington, Ky., and Panama City, Fla., who bought the coin in partnership, according to Heritage Auctions.

"Not only is it just one of only five known, genuine 1913-dated Liberty Head design nickels, this particular one was off the radar for decades until it literally came out of the closet after a nationwide search," said Heritage Auctions Vice President Todd Imhof.

The coin was struck at the Philadelphia mint in late 1912, the final year of its issue, but with the year 1913 cast on its face — the same year the beloved Buffalo Head nickel was introduced.

A mint worker named Samuel W. Brown is suspected of producing the coin and altering the die to add the bogus date, according to Douglas Mudd, curator of the American Numismatic Association Money Museum in Colorado Springs, Col., which has held the coin for most of the past 10 years.

The coins' existence wasn't known until Brown offered them for sale at the American Numismatic Association Convention in Chicago in 1920, beyond the statute of limitations. The five remained together as a set under various owners until 1942.

A North Carolina collector, George O. Walton, purchased one of the coins in the mid-1940s for a reported $3,750. The coin was with him when he was killed in a car crash on March 9, 1962, and it was found among hundreds of coins scattered at the crash site.

One of Walton's heirs, his sister, Melva Givens of Salem, Va., was given the 1913 Liberty nickel after experts declared the coin a fake because of suspicions the date had been altered. The flaw probably happened because of Brown's imprecise work casting the planchet — the copper and nickel blank disc used to create the coin.

"She kept the nickel in a box with family items in the closet, and it stayed there for four decades," said Givens' son, Ryan Givens of Salem.

After his mother's death, the siblings brought the coin to the 2003 American Numismatic Association World's Fair of Money in Baltimore, where the four surviving 1913 Liberty nickels were being exhibited. A team of rare coin experts concluded it was the long-missing fifth coin. Each shared a small imperfection under the date.

Since its authentication, the Walton nickel has been on loan to the Colorado Springs museum and has been publicly exhibited nationwide.

"This is one of the greatest coins at that price range," said one of the successful bidders, Jeff Garrett of Lexington, Ky.

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