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Shadowy rarity: 1913 nickel first seen in 1919, not 1920

 Worth millions, there are only five examples of the 1913 Liberty Head nickel. Despite a century of study, many questions about its origins remain unanswered. This is the Olsen specimen.

Worth millions, there are only five examples of the 1913 Liberty Head nickel. Despite a century of study, many questions about its origins remain unanswered. This is the Olsen specimen.

On a rainy afternoon in October 1919, Samuel W. Brown posed for a photograph that could be a key to the sketchy history of the famed 1913 Liberty Head nickel, of which five specimens are known.

Brown is shown standing on the porch of the Philadelphia Mint – at the left end of the seventh row of those posing. The photo was taken less than two months before he exhibited an example of the rarity to prominent numismatists of the Chicago Coin Club at its meeting on Dec. 3, 1919. (That meeting, as will be shown here, is now the site of the earliest known display of the nickel that can be supported through a contemporary report – replacing the showing at the next year’s convention in that regard.)

Brown was part of a large tour group from the 1919 Philadelphia ANA convention when the aforementioned photo was taken. The convention was held Oct. 4-8, 1919, at the Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia. The Bellevue-Stratford hotel served as the convention headquarters.

Greeting the show goers at the Philadelphia Mint, on Oct. 6, was Brown’s former boss, Dr. T.L. Comparette, head the Mint Cabinet, which was home to the nation’s coin collection. Comparette is pictured at the far right end of the same row as Brown.

This was the official ANA convention photo, which could later be purchased, unmounted, for $1 per copy from Henry Chapman. It was reproduced on p. 431 of the November 1919 issue of the ANA’s journal, The Numismatist. It also appeared in the November 1919 issue of B. Max Mehl’s Mehl’s Numismatic Monthly.

The Numismatist wrote of that visit, under the heading, “Visit to the United States Mint”:

“Monday afternoon a visit was made to the Mint, where the party met at 12.30 o’clock. They were courteously received by Dr. Comparette, who accompanied them on the tour of inspection of the mechanical departments of the institution, the various processes of coinage being explained by the Mint guides. The first room visited was the melting-room, where molten metal which later becomes coins is cast into ingots. The next room visited contained the machinery for rolling the ingots into long thin strips, from which the planchets for coins are cut, and finally to the room containing the coining presses and the counting-boards, and where the coins are placed in bags for shipment. The counting-boards were a novelty for many of the party, and the movements of the boards in the hands of the operators, by which 1,000 coins at a time are accurately counted in a few seconds, were watched with interest. In this room are also many tables for the examination of the planchets, from which all defective ones are removed. Copper cents appeared to be the product for that day, and for many preceding days, judging from the number of them in sight, and reports of the scarcity of that coin seemed totally unwarranted.

“After the tour of inspection the party was conducted to the Cabinet, where Dr. Comparette was almost overwhelmed with questions regarding the specimens under his care as curator. After all had been answered the party was asked by the committee to step outside, where, in a slight drizzle of rain, the official photograph of the convention was taken.”

 Samuel W. Brown (at far left in the second row from the top) can be seen in the back of the 1919 ANA convention photograph.

Samuel W. Brown (at far left in the second row from the top) can be seen in the back of the 1919 ANA convention photograph.

 Samuel W. Brown (circled)

Samuel W. Brown (circled)

Significantly, shortly after the Philadelphia Mint tour, Brown’s first advertisement offering to buy a 1913 Liberty Head nickel, “in proof condition, if possible,” was placed in the December 1919 issue of The Numismatist. More significantly, however, is that he apparently had one of the coins within days of his first advertisement going to press (and likely prior to this happening).

Creating a rarity

In 1913 the Mint adopted James Earle Fraser’s design for the five-cent piece. Fraser’s Indian Head replaced the Liberty Head design, by Charles Barber. No 1913 nickels with the Liberty Head design were to be struck. But today, five are known bearing that date. They are great rarities, selling in the millions of dollars at auction.

Most writers believe they were clandestinely created by Samuel W. Brown, a Mint employee at the time of design change, who in 1920 showed up at the ANA convention in Chicago and left on display one of the nickels.

The exact date of the striking of the five known coins has long been in contention, so is whether they are actually proofs and whether or not Brown had an accomplice in the minting of the coins, who had access to the necessary dies.

Some have argued that the coining could have occurred more contemporaneous with its exhibition at the 1920 convention; others believe the dies for making such coins would have been destroyed long prior to that, necessitating that coins were minted circa late 1912 or early 1913.

A question of appearances

Most who have looked at the background of the 1913 Liberty Head nickel have come to assume that the hobby first learned of this rarity at the 1920 American Numismatic Association convention in Chicago. There were rumors of earlier showings, but contemporary written record has been evasive, leaving until now the 1920 convention as the earliest known mention of the 1913 Liberty Head nickel in print from the time period, other than Brown’s advertisements.

However, apparently hidden in plain sight was such an earlier reference. It appeared rather matter-of-factly in the February 1920 issue of The Numismatist, which provided a detailed summary of the 10th monthly meeting of the newly formed Chicago Coin Club.

The meeting was held on Wednesday, Dec. 3, 1919, at the Hotel Sherman in Chicago, where Brown (who was listed as being in attendance) was one of 10 new members entered into the CCC’s ranks.

Those elected to membership, as noted in The Numismatist’s recap of the meeting, were: “Frank A. Johnston, G.W. Tracey, D.A. French, Frank Hansen, Virgil Brand and Roger Graham of Chicago; H.O. Granberg, Oshkosh, Wis.; Samuel W. Brown, North Tonawanda, N.Y.; J.G. Gunderson, Aneta, N.D., and E.D. Bushnell of New York.”

More significantly, many brought exhibits to the meeting, including Brown, of whose exhibit it is written on p. 62 of that issue the following:

“By Mr. S.W. Brown: Proof nickel of 1913, of the old type. Proof nickels are not supposed to have been struck during that year.”

If reported and transcribed correctly, as submitted by CCC secretary R.E. Davis, here is the earliest published reference to the 1913 Liberty Head nickel currently known.

It would seem from the way the Dec. 3 CCC meeting summary is presented in The Numismatist that Brown had only one 1913 Liberty Head nickel with him at that time, though it doesn’t mean he didn’t have or know the whereabouts of the remaining four.

Of special note is that the Dec. 3, 1919 date for the meeting is only two days after Brown’s first advertisement offering to buy the coins was published in the December 1919 issue of The Numismatist and before that issue was mailed to ANA members.

Brown’s ad, which appeared on p. 51, read:

“In Proof condition, if possible.
“Will pay $500 cash for one.
“North Tonawanda, N.Y.”

He would place three more ads, identical to the first, except that he raised his buy price to $600 for each of the January-March issues of The Numismatist.

According to the masthead in the December 1919 issue of The Numismatist, “The Numismatist will be published promptly on the 1st of each month.” At the time, Frank G. Duffield, of Baltimore, was the editor and business manager.

Duffield noted in that same issue that The Numismatist was printed and mailed each month at Federalsburg, Md., “and for the past four years an effort has been made to have it placed in the mails on the 5th of the month, and except in rare instances this has been done.” Duffield said that under that practice, any subscriber east of the Mississippi River should receive it by the 10th of the month, blaming any additional delay on it being sent by second-class mail, adding that as such The Numismatist wasn’t the only magazine that “does not make good time in the mails.” Therefore, it’s likely none of the ANA member readership would have seen the December 1919 issue prior to the Dec. 3 CCC meeting.

Further, if Brown followed the rules of submission of advertising material, as they are stated in the publication’s masthead, he would have had to have his ad concerning the 1913 Liberty Head nickel to Duffield by Nov. 20 of the prior month. Suspiciously, this would have been, at most, a little more than a month after Brown’s visit to the Philadelphia Mint at the ANA convention and thereby raises questions about when he obtained the coin he showed at the CCC meeting. One of these is: Considering the image of Brown at the Philadelphia Mint and the short time between that and the placement of his first ad, did he get one of the coins during his Philadelphia Mint visit, or at least learn of its existence and whereabouts there?

Another is: If he had the coins prior to 1919, why didn’t he show them in Philadelphia or earlier? Was he, as some have suggested, awaiting a seven-year statute of limitations to run out for having removed the coins from the Mint circa late 1912 or early 1913?

Could World War I have intervened with any earlier plan to sell the coins? It is not likely for Brown, as he registered for the draft in 1918, but perhaps for an accomplice who served. (The ANA convention was not held in 1918.)

Also, why did he stop running ads in The Numismatist well before the 1920 convention? If his true aim was to gin up interest and a market for his coin (or coins) before his showing at that convention, as has been believed, why didn’t the ads continue in the April, May, June, July and August issues? Certainly more collectors would have been following convention happenings as the date approached and information appeared in print.

Could he have been seeking the whereabouts of the other specimens? This last question allows that the ads weren’t a total sales ploy. If anyone had one, a buying price of $500 or $600 would have been attractive, and perhaps even outlandish, as several established rarities could be had in those days for much less.

Plus, why did he raise the price? He already had one coin, at least, by the time of his $500 offer. What would raising the offer another $100 do?

Equally perplexing is, if he was at all worried about any question of the legitimacy of the coins or the legality of his possessing them, he apparently had no qualms about showing his 1913 Liberty Head nickel to the knowledgeable collectors of the CCC at that Dec. 3, 1919 meeting.

The newly formed club was a magnet for several of the big players in the hobby.

Notable among these was William F. Dunham, who by the listing in The Numismatist, was not at the CCC meeting where Brown showed his nickel. Dunham was at the prior year’s ANA convention in Philadelphia and perhaps met Brown there.

He is shown in the same photo as Brown. Dunham is at the end of the sixth row in the Philadelphia Mint picture.

A CCC charter member, Dunham owned one of the more famous of the so-called “clandestine” coins that emerged from the U.S. Mint, the 1804 Draped Bust silver dollar. He exhibited the same at the 1920 convention in Chicago. The Numismatist wrote in its October 1920 issue: “The piece in this exhibit about which interest centered was Mr. Dunham’s 1804 dollar, known to collectors as the Dexter piece, and which he has rechristened the ‘Chicago dollar.’”

Another highly experienced CCC numismatist was Theopile E. Leon. He was at the meeting in question and, in fact, was credited with having “secured” Brown and the nine other new members joining that day.

Leon was a member of the ANA’s board of governors, a CCC charter member, and an associate of famed numismatist Virgil Brand in the Chicago Coin Co. Brand also joined the CCC at the Dec. 3 meeting.

If the list of registered members is correct, Leon wasn’t at the ANA convention in Philadelphia. So he wouldn’t have had contact with Brown there. Leon did serve as exhibit chairman for the following year’s convention in Chicago and may have had some influence in bringing Brown to that convention, though this is pure speculation. (Chicago’s bid to host, as noted later, was awarded at Philadelphia.)

Present also at this Dec. 3, 1919 meeting was Alden Scott Boyer, incoming CCC president, who exhibited two $50 gold slugs and whose name will appear prominently in the 1913 nickel story by the time of 1920 convention in Chicago.

Certainly, if Brown was or had been concerned about having his coin confiscated prior to arranging to sell it, then bringing it to the CCC was a risk. It’s likely he would have had to explain the legitimacy and some of the history of the coin to CCC members in showing the coin.

Brown wasn’t a neophyte to the hobby and would have been fully aware of what he was doing and, presumably, the risks. As will be noted, the 1919 Philadelphia convention wasn’t his first appearance at an ANA convention, nor was it his first exposure to Mint rarities and their value to collectors.

CCC bids to host ANA

The storied CCC began looking into hosting an ANA convention in Chicago shortly after its formation, in February 1919. At its sixth meeting, on July 2, 1919 (as noted in the August 1919 issue of The Numismatist): “A general discussion of ways and means to be employed to bring the 1920 A.N.A. Convention to Chicago was held. It was shown that the Club was quite united and very much in earnest about securing the convention.”

By the Oct. 1 meeting (reported in the November 1919 issue of The Numismatist), Leon, who was named executive chairman for the convention, was instructed to invite the ANA to Chicago. The club also sent a circular letter to all ANA members (reproduced in the July 1919 issue of The Numismatist) urging members to support its bid.

Chicago’s bid was approved at the 1919 Philadelphia convention and preparations for the big event were quickly put into place.

Terming it “the Master-City of the Middle West,” ANA President Waldo C. Moore called on members to come to the convention. “It is the ambition of every member to visit Chicago,” Moore wrote in the June 1920 issue of The Numismatist. “To him who has seen the city once there is a desire to repeat the experience and to view wonders which were missed on the initial pilgrimage. There is a welcome for every member of the A.N.A., as well as every reader of The Numismatist.”

The host hotel for 1920 Chicago ANA was the Hotel Sherman, at the corner of Randolph and Clark streets, which was also the site of the CCC’s monthly meetings in those days. ANA headquarters were in rooms 111 and 112.

According to The Numismatist, there were nine other conventions scheduled to meet in Chicago that week, so immediate securing of hotel reservations was advised. Singles at the Hotel Sherman ran from $2.50 to $3 without a bath and $3.50 to $6 with. Doubles without bath were $4 and with bath $5 to $10. Connecting rooms could also be secured for a higher rate.

In the July issue of The Numismatist it was reported that “The sessions of the Convention and exhibit of coins will be held in the Chicago Art Institute, on Michigan Boulevard, the same building in which the coin exhibit was made at the Chicago Convention in 1911.”

Different kind of beast

ANA conventions, then and for several years after, were different than those held today. The open selling of coins was basically prohibited in the exhibit area and to an extent frowned upon elsewhere. This was partially because of the rules of the host site, as some of the venues prohibited sales, and also because of ANA attempts to keep the conventions educational in nature.

At the 1920 Chicago convention, Moritz Wormser, chairman of the ANA board of governors, responding to a criticism that the ANA was merely a dealer organization, said “...there should be no official recognition of dealing in coins at the convention; our exhibitions should be true exhibitions of numismatics, and not merely the holding forth of wares for sale.” He added, “We are here to buy coins, but sales should not be made in the exhibition-room…”

This unwritten prohibition held through many years. At the 1921 convention, in Boston, it was reported by The Numismatist in its May 1921 issue that: “It has been decided that all coins exhibited must remain on exhibition during the time of convention, and nothing is to be sold or exhibited as for sale – that is, with prices affixed.”

Elmer S. Sears explained, as covered in the October 1921 issue, that: “It has been the rule or law of most every public building where we have held our exhibitions in the last few years that no coins exhibited there were to be sold within the building, and that rule, I was told by the gentleman who wrote me, together with several others of the Boston Numismatic Society, would be strictly enforced.”

He added, “It seems to me that when a dealer comes here to make an exhibit he should be willing to abide by the rules and regulations laid down by the building in which the exhibition is held. If not, then, to my mind, it is high time that this Association pass some rule regulating the commercial part of the program.”

Before the 1922 convention it was announced, in the June 1922 issue, that: “At our New York Convention we want to demonstrate particularly the fact that the A.N.A. is founded for educational and scientific purposes and entirely free of any suspicion of commercialism.... It must be a fixed rule that no lots shown in the exhibit room are to be marked ‘for sale,’ either with or without prices, and after coins are in the exhibit cases, they must remain there throughout the session.”

The August issue reported on the setting up of “a sort of numismatic bourse” for those who wanted to buy and sell coins. “This is a new feature at A.N.A. conventions and it should prove popular to all – to those who have only a few duplicates to dispose of, to the dealer who will bring selections from stock, or to the member who wants to buy from anyone, providing the goods and the price suit.”

Brown’s big day

The June 1920 issue of The Numismatist reported that there was plenty of room to exhibit coins at the upcoming convention in Chicago, but exhibits should be installed in the exhibit area by Sunday, Aug. 22. “They will be carefully guarded day and night, and will be perfectly safe.”

The record of Brown’s nickel being in Chicago is not listed in the recap titled “The Convention Exhibits,” appearing in the October 1920 issue of The Numismatist. This section presents itself as a listing of all of the exhibitors, even if they failed to provide a description of their exhibit. The failure to mention Brown’s nickel here could be an oversight, as Brown brought the nickel to the show after the set-up time, or the meaning of “among the exhibits” from the report on Brown’s nickel (given nine pages later in the same issue, under the “Notes of the Convention”) meant something different.

The Numismatist’s account reads:

“Samuel W. Brown of North Tonawanda, N.Y., was present for a short time on Monday [Aug. 23]. He had with him a specimen of the latest great rarity in U.S. coinage – the nickel of 1913 of the Liberty Head type. It was among the exhibits the remainder of the Convention, with a label announcing that it was valued at $600, which amount Mr. Brown announced he is ready to pay for all proof specimens offered to him. An explanation of its rarity is that at the close of 1912, the mint authorities not having received orders to use the dies of the buffalo type nickel at the beginning of 1913, prepared a master die of the Liberty Head type dated 1913, and from this master die a few pieces – believed to be five – in proof were struck. None of these are believed to have been placed in circulation.”

Brown’s nickel would remain at the convention, presumably among the regular exhibits, and ultimately fall into the care of Alden Scott Boyer. We know this because, sometime after the convention, and prior to the end of 1920, Brown asked for his nickel to be returned, as he had a sale pending. It can be assumed that Boyer complied.

In the January 1921 issue of The Numismatist, under heading, “The Rare 1913 Nickel,” appeared:

“The value of $600 placed some months ago on the 1913 Liberty head type nickel, in proof condition, seems to have advanced, as the following letter from Mr. S.W. Brown of North Tonawanda, N.Y., to Mr. Alden S. Boyer of Chicago, will show:

“‘Dear Mr. Boyer – I would appreciate it very much if you would return the 1913 Liberty head nickel you have with your coins in the Masonic Temple vault in your city. I have a deal pending for the sale of this coin, and it is necessary that I have it within the next ten days. If you will, kindly send it by express, charges collect, and estimate the value at $750. Thanking you for your courtesy in this matter.’”

(It was fortunate for Brown that his nickel was being held at the Masonic Temple, for during the same time period a portion of Boyer’s collection was stolen from his office at Boyer Chemical Laboratory Co. on North Clark St. On Oct. 18, 1920, thieves rifled through one of his three safes there, taking bank notes from his collection.)

Who was Samuel W. Brown?

The obituary notice in the August 1944 issue of The Numismatist records:

“Samuel W. Brown, 64, of North Tonawanda, N.Y., died on June 17, after a year’s illness. A native of Pennsylvania, he had resided in North Tonawanda for many years, taking an active part in civic affairs, serving as Mayor for several terms, and for ten years was a member of the Board of Education. Before leaving his native state he was employed for a time as storekeeper in the Mint at Philadelphia, and after locating in New York state he at one time was appointed a member of the Assay Commission. His former membership in the A.N.A. was acquired many years ago, his number being 808.”

David L. Ganz, in Profitable Coin Collecting, puts Brown at Mint from Dec. 18, 1903 to Nov. 14, 1913. He worked as assistant curator of the Mint cabinet.

Roger Burdette, in Renaissance of American Coinage, 1909-1915, contends it’s unclear when Brown came into the Mint’s employ, though it was at least by 1906, when Burdette says Brown was an assistant curator, serving under Comparette. By 1912, according to Burdette, Brown is a clerk-storekeeper. He places Brown’s date of departure as Nov. 24, 1913.

At the time of the ANA convention in Philadelphia in 1919, where Brown likely rekindled relationships with his former Mint coworkers, Brown was 40 years old. The 1920 census shows him married to Carrie C. Brown and living in North Tonawanda’s Ward 1, Niagara County, N.Y. with a daughter, Evelyn, age 11, who was born in Delaware. He was born in Pennsylvania, which was also his father and mother’s birthplace.

Brown’s World War I draft registration card from Sept. 12, 1918 gives his date of birth as Aug. 2, 1879 and shows he was employed by Frontier Chocolate Co., 323 Payne Ave. in North Tonawanda. His occupation is given, but is illegible on the card. It also shows his middle name to be Walter.

An obituary notice in the June 19, 1944, issue of the North Tonawanda Evening News adds additional biographical information. Noting that Brown was a Republican, the News said Brown served as mayor of North Tonawanda from 1932-1933, having moved to that city in 1913 to go into association with Wayne Fahnestock in Frontier Chocolate Co. Later Brown was employed by Pierce-Brown Co., retiring in 1924.

Brown was a member of Sutherland Lodge No. 826, of the Free and Accepted Masons, of which he was past master. He also served as district deputy grandmaster of the Niagara Oleans district and was a member of the Buffalo consistory, the Ismailia Temple and the Shrine Club of Tonawanda.

The Jan. 19, 1920 issue of Iron Age shows him associated with Pierce-Brown Co. at Main and Wheat streets in North Tonawanda as one of three incorporators of the business. It manufactured castings and machinery. In the Accountants’ Directory and Who’s Who 1920, he is listed as Pierce-Brown Co.’s certified public accountant.

Brown is mentioned in the June 1920 issue of The Numismatist under New York in its “List of Members of the American Numismatic Association” as being ANA member No. 808 and residing at 261 Goundry St., North Tonawanda.

He was a member of the 1924 Assay Commission in early February, serving on the Committee on Counting, which had seven members and was chaired by William A. Ashbrook. The Assay Commission each year judged the quality of the nation’s coinage.

Brown also served on the Assay Commission in 1925. Again he was on the Committee on Counting, which was this time chaired by A.R. Johnson. Brown can be seen in a picture on p. 311 of the April 1924 The Numismatist along with other commission members.

As has been mentioned, the 1919 convention wasn’t Brown’s first convention or experience with the ANA.

Brown’s application for membership appears on p. 121 of the April 1906 issue of The Numismatist. It lists: “Samuel W. Brown, U.S. Mint, Philadelphia, Pa. Vouchers. Stephen K. Nagy and Dr. Heath.” In the June issue he is reported as member No. 808.

Also from The Numismatist Oct.Nov. 1908 issue we know that he was at the ANA convention in Philadelphia that year.

Now a coin of legend

By two years after Brown’s display, the hobby certainly was well aware of the nickel and its importance. Texas dealer B. Max Mehl, who was at the 1920 convention and presumably saw the 1913 Liberty Head nickel that Brown left on display, was by 1922 offering to buy examples. For instance, in the Feb. 5, 1922 issue of the Denver Rocky Mountain News, Mehl was tendering $50 for any specimens.

These ads ran across the country, calling for 1913 Liberty Head nickels. Later ads included a disclaimer, “not Buffalo,” as he was likely getting swamped with 1913 Indian Head nickels.

In 1924 all five specimens of the 1913 Liberty Head nickel were offered by dealer August Wagner, who in the December 1923 issue of The Numismatist advised:

“Five (5) Five-Cent Liberty
“Head 1913 Coins. Proof.
“The only Five-Cent Liberty Head Coins of this design and year in existence.
“August Wagner,
“31st and York Sts.,
“Philadelphia, Pa.”

The history of these coins since has been well documented, with the coins having passed through the hands of a veritable who’s who of hobby luminaries. One specimen remained missing for a number of years, having been last seen in the possession of dealer George O. Walton, in 1962, when Walton lost his life in a car crash. The coin was recovered at the time, but was misidentified as a fake. Its authenticity wasn’t known until 2003, when it was brought by Walton’s relatives to the ANA convention in Baltimore, compared with the other examples, and pronounced genuine by a group of professional numismatists.

Today all of the coins make news when they come up for sale and bring high prices despite any lingering questions as to their origin and how they escaped the Mint.

End notes

Additional tales of possible 1913 Liberty Head nickel showings prior to the 1920 convention, including a seemingly likely one involving the Rochester (N.Y.) Numismatic Association that has yet to be confirmed, are well detailed in Million Dollar Nickels, by Paul Montgomery, Mark Borckardt and Ray Knight, and The Complete Guide to Shield & Liberty Head Nickels, by Gloria Peters and Cynthia Mohon.

Both books are essential to any library for an in-depth history of the origin and controversies surrounding these valuable, mysterious and enticing nickels.

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