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1913 Liberty Head nickel a classic rarity

In the 1920s and early 1930s, one man and one coin were key factors that brought new life to old hobby. That coin was the 1913 Liberty Head (

Although coin collecting was alive and well in the United States during the 1860s and 1870s, there was a certain amount of decline towards the latter part of the 19th century. Through 1920, numismatic activity was little, if any, better, but in the 1920s and early 1930s one man and one coin, were key factors that brought new life to old hobby.

That coin was the 1913 Liberty Head (?V?) nickel and the man was Texas coin dealer B. Max Mehl. The flamboyant Mehl published a guide to rare coins and offered to buy those pieces which could be resold to collectors. The one piece which caught the public fancy was, of course, the 1913 nickel, for which Mehl offered to pay $50. His Star Rare Coin Encyclopedia went through numerous editions, especially during the Great Depression. He never actually purchased a single genuine 1913 Liberty Head nickel through this offer, but did make considerable money selling his books.

The reason that Mehl did not buy any of the famous nickels for $50 was relatively simple. Only five had been made and the Texas dealer knew perfectly well that all were accounted for in the collecting world. In point of fact, from 1926 until his death in June 1936, Colonel E.H.R. Green owned all of them. After that time, the coins began their interesting journeys through various collections and auctions.

In some ways the history of the 1913 Liberty Head nickel begins with the adoption of its design in 1883. Philadelphia Mint Superintendent A. Loudon Snowden had asked Chief Engraver Charles Barber to create something new and different for our coinage. The design was well accepted by the public, being considered a distinct improvement over the old Shield nickel.

Coinage gradually grew in quantity as the American economy became ever more robust after the severe Depression of the early 1890s. By 1906 demand for cents and nickels had grown to the point that Congress was asked to allow the other mints to strike these minor coins. In April of that year a law to this effect was passed although not put into use until 1908, when San Francisco began minting the Indian Head cent.

The nickel had to wait until 1912 to find itself being issued by a mint other than Philadelphia. The Denver Mint struck its first nickels on Feb. 5 and by year?s end the coining room had delivered a respectable eight million pieces, a large enough number that even today collectors have little trouble in finding a decent specimen at reasonable cost. San Francisco is another story entirely, with only 238,000 pieces struck during the last week of December 1912.

In the meantime, steps were underway to end the coinage of Liberty Head nickels and replace this design with the innovative Indian Head (Buffalo) nickel. Treasury Secretary Franklin MacVeagh made this decision in the spring of 1911 although it would take nearly two years to come to fruition. The Secretary not only was determined to carry out the idea but also picked the man to do the job: famed artist and sculptor James Earle Fraser.

Fraser worked on his design during 1912. There were a series of changes, as MacVeagh and others critiqued the artwork. Even a vending machine company got into the act and demanded alterations so that the new coins would work properly in their devices.

Although Fraser worked on his models for the new nickel throughout 1912, for some unknown reason Philadelphia Mint officials were not kept informed of his progress. As late as early December 1912, these officials believed that the new Fraser design would not be introduced in 1913 and that the old Liberty Head dies would be used in the coming year. Had they been fully informed of what was going on with Fraser and MacVeagh, it is possible that the 1913 Liberty Head nickel would never have come into being.

It was standard practice at the Philadelphia Mint to prepare coinage dies well in advance of the new year so that they could be sent to the other mints in plenty of time. Normally the first dies to be prepared were those for proof coins as this gave the engraving department the chance to make certain that all was well with the hubs and hubbing process for each denomination.

The proof nickel dies for 1913 were executed in early November 1912 and it is possible, though unlikely, that sample pieces were struck to test the dies. If the latter was in fact true, it is also probable that such samples would have been carefully accounted for and then destroyed after careful examination by Chief Engraver Charles Barber.

It was the usual practice for the Denver and San Francisco superintendents to order the necessary dies for the coming year well in advance of January 1. For some reason, perhaps a temporary glut of such coins in area marketplaces, Denver did not order any dies for a 1913 nickel coinage in the fall of 1912 but San Francisco did. On Nov. 25 the Philadelphia engraving department mailed 10 pairs of dies to San Francisco for the projected 1913 coinage of nickels; they arrived toward the end of that month. The Denver Mint dies were mailed a few days later, on Dec. 9, but did not of course include any dies for nickels.

Due to persistent rumors about the Fraser design, in early December Philadelphia Mint Superintendent John H. Landis sent a letter to his immediate superior, Mint Director George E. Roberts at the Bureau of the Mint in Washington, inquiring about the status of the new design and if, in fact, it would be used in 1913 as rumored. Landis also asked if there were to be any Liberty Head nickels coined in 1913.

The reply from Director Roberts was short and to the point: the new Fraser design would be used exclusively in 1913 and no Liberty Head nickel coinage would be permitted. The Roberts letter was received at the Philadelphia Mint on December 15 and from that time on it would have been common knowledge among the officers, and probably workmen as well, that Liberty Head nickel coinage would end on Dec. 31. Under these conditions it appears that Dec. 16 is the first possible date that the 1913 "V" nickels would have been struck.

Very soon after receiving the letter from the director, Landis sent a message to his San Francisco counterpart, asking him to return the 10 sets of 1913 nickel dies that had been sent out in late November. The request was honored immediately and the San Francisco dies were delivered to the Philadelphia engraving department, for eventual defacement, on Dec. 23, 1912.

It was usual practice in those days to send dies out from Philadelphia in an unhardened state. In this way, had they been stolen en route, counterfeiters would not have known the proper hardening procedures for dies and it would have been difficult for such dies to be used to strike counterfeit coins. It is unknown if San Francisco had yet hardened the nickel dies but if so it is likely that they were defaced in some way before being returned to Philadelphia.

As of Dec. 23, therefore, there were at least 11 pairs of 1913 Liberty Head nickels dies on hand, the 10 from San Francisco and the single set of proof dies. As die destruction was invariably scheduled for the first week of January, no one apparently thought to provide any special precautions for the safety of the proof dies. These proof dies were, of course, carefully covered with grease in order to prevent any rust marring their surfaces; the Mint was always very meticulous about such matters as only the best quality was wanted.

In 1912, proof coins were struck only on a special hydraulic press, which was also used for medals. After 1901, the authority to strike proof coins rested with the chief engraver although such pieces were normally sold through the medal department, a division directly under the superintendent. The coining department actually prepared the proof planchets, but it seems likely that they were stored by the engraving department after that time. Some planchets may well have been kept in the coining room vault for back-up purposes.

Planchets on hand for the nickel proof coinage in 1912 would have been of the old style. Prior to 1913 five-cent proofs always had highly polished surfaces and frosted vignettes, very similar to the proof coins of the current time. The copper-nickel alloy was a difficult one to use and no doubt there were always extra planchets on hand as the failure rate may have been relatively high at times.

After it became known within the Mint that the 1913 Liberty Head nickels would not be struck for either the general public or collectors, someone in the institution came up with the idea of correcting this ?oversight.? This individual, thought by some to be Samuel W. Brown, seems to have enlisted the aid of a friend in the engraving department, where the dies and proof planchets would have been kept. This second person must have had access to the necessary keys in order to ?liberate? these items from their secure locations.

It is thought likely that Brown had a confederate because he was an employee of the storekeeping department, not the engraving department and presumably had no access to dies or planchets; it also seems likely that no more than two persons were involved as secrets are much easier to keep that way. The two men needed to act promptly because of the normal die destruction scheduled for just after New Years Day. Obtaining a small number of planchets, both proof and uncirculated, the dies were placed in the hydraulic press and used to strike several specimens.

The nature of this clandestine coinage does not lead to records being kept so we are in the dark, and probably will remain so, for the exact day that the operation was successfully carried out. One might suggest Christmas Eve, when security would perhaps been a little lax in line with the general tenor of the season. Whatever day was involved, the coins would have been removed from the Mint with all due haste as it would have been folly to have such pieces discovered in someone?s possession.

Although the Liberty Head nickel dies are thought to have been destroyed in early January, there was in fact no coinage of nickels in January at any of the mints. This was due, part, to a continuing dispute between the vending machine company and the artist over the design of the coin. In due course, after several fruitless meetings and attempts to mollify the private company, the Treasury Secretary held one last meeting on Feb. 15; nothing of substance was accomplished then, either, so MacVeagh simply ordered that coinage begin with the latest models and within a few days the first Buffalo nickels were delivered.

Although the 1913 Liberty Head nickels had been surreptitiously struck in late December 1913, little was heard of them for some years. In December 1919, however, Samuel W. Brown, by now a former employee of the Philadelphia Mint, placed an advertisement in The Numismatist offering to purchase one or more of the 1913 Liberty Head nickels for $500 each. He received little notice for this because in those days, collectors sometimes looked for coins that had never existed, much like mid-19th century attempts to find an 1815 cent or 1804 half dollar.

To stir the pot a little, Brown upped the ante to $600 in the January 1920 issue, but it is likely that this notice was placed shortly after the original advertisement appeared. The second advertisement did raise, one supposes, a few eyebrows but again it was barely a ripple in the American numismatic river.

After having offered to buy 1913 Liberty Head nickels, Brown surprised everyone, or nearly so, by producing one of these coins for display at the 1920 American Numismatic Association convention, held at Chicago Aug. 23-26. After the convention ended little was heard of the new coins for several years but in 1924 dealer August Wagner, acting on commission, offered the entire set of coins for sale. It was eventually purchased in 1926 by the eccentric - and very wealthy ? Colonel E.H.R. Green, son of the famous Hetty Green.

Col. Green died in 1936 and the set of coins, once the legal formalities had been taken care of by an army of lawyers, wound up in the hands of St. Louis dealer Burdette G. Johnson. The latter disposed of the individual coins to several people, including famed numismatist Eric P. Newman. Another owner was J.V. (Mac) McDermott, who willingly loaned his specimen for display on numerous occasions.

One of the by-products of the Mehl advertising campaign to buy the 1913 Liberty Head nickels was perhaps to be expected. A fair number of ordinary people wrote to the Bureau of the Mint asking for details of this particular coin. The invariable answer: the Bureau was not interested and had no information to share. This civilized approach contrasts poorly with the attitude of the Bureau after 1944 when it sought out the 1933 double eagles and seized them from their rightful owners on the false grounds that they had been stolen.

Those who are interested in reading of the fabled 1913 nickel in greater detail, especially the later owners, should read Million Dollar Nickels by Paul Montgomery, Mark Borckardt and Ray Knight (Bowers & Merena, 2005). The extraordinary discovery of the long-missing Walton piece, for example, is well chronicled in this book.