What you see: A 1913 Liberty Head nickel, one of five produced. Stack’s Bowers Galleries estimates it at $3 million to $5 million.
The expert: Brian Kendrella, president of Stack’s Bowers Galleries.
I see here that five 1913 Liberty Head nickels were made–not that five survive. What do we know about how the nickels came to be? The history of the 1913 Liberty Head nickel is a little murky and there’s a lot of lore to it. That’s one of the intriguing aspects of this coin. There’s no confirmed story, and there’s no U.S. Mint records surrounding the 1913 Liberty Head nickel. But there are a couple of theories. One is they were struck and exchanged with collectors for coins that were missing from the Mint’s collection. Another is they were privately struck at the Mint and they found their way onto the market, or they were struck for wealthy collectors. 1913 was the first year of the buffalo nickel. Because the buffalo design was not approved until late February of 1913, there was a two-month period in 1913 when the nickels could have been made.
And the Liberty Head design on the 1913 nickel is the same design that was on the nickel from 1883 to 1912? Yes, it’s the same. In 1913, the Mint switched to the buffalo nickel that everyone is so familiar with.
How many of the five 1913 Liberty Head nickels are in private hands? Two are permanently housed in museums–one is in the Smithsonian, and the other is in the American Numismatic Association (ANA) Museum in Colorado Springs, Colorado. That leaves three in private hands.
When was the last time a 1913 Liberty Head nickel went to auction? Two nickels were offered in 2014. They were two different specimens, and one of the two was previously offered in 2010. Prior to that, the last auction appearance was our coin in 1996. They do not come around very often.
When was this nickel graded? Was it encapsulated? It is encapsulated, and I do not have the date when it was graded. Our collector acquired it in 2007. I’m guessing it was around then.
Are the other two in private hands graded and encapsulated? And is it a tough call to seal the coin in plastic? You bring up a good point. There are a lot of benefits to certification and getting it sealed in a plastic holder. One, the coin is guaranteed to be authentic. If you’re spending a couple of million on something, an authenticity guarantee is important. Two, it’s protected. And most important of all, having it third party-graded and encapsulated is really the way the market accepts rare coins today. Everything we sell is encapsulated. It does feel a little more bit more distant because it’s in a plastic holder, but it’s really not a hard decision to have them graded.
How does this nickel stand out from its four siblings? It’s pretty universally recognized that this is the finest of the five pieces. Ours is mirror-like, and very sharply struck. All the design shows up in the coin. It’s a 66 on a scale of 70. It’s nearly flawless. The other two in private hands have grades of 63 and 64. The others have more of a satiny finish, and other coins do show some signs of handling. The one in the ANA museum was owned by someone who carried it in his pocket, unprotected, with keys and change, and it shows significant signs of wear.
This nickel once belonged to Louis Eliasberg, a prominent American coin collector. Why was he such a big deal in the numismatic world? He was probably the most accomplished numismatist ever. Not only did he get examples of every [American] coin ever created, he got great pieces. Today, everything with an Eliasberg provenance trades at a premium.
How many of the five 1913 Liberty Head nickels has Stack’s Bowers Galleries handled? We’ve handled four of the five. The one in the ANA museum never made it through our hands at any point.
What’s the world auction record for a 1913 Liberty Head nickel? What’s the likelihood that this nickel will meet or beat that sum? In 2010, the nickel with the 64 grade sold for $3.7 million. It’s pretty likely to meet or beat the record. I’ll take the over if we’re betting. (Laughs.)
What has changed in the numismatic market between 2010 and now? The market is very strong right now. Given the fact that the coin has not been offered publicly since 1996 and may not be offered again in our lifetime, depending on who buys it, we expect a lot of competition for the coin and we expect it to do well.
Why will this coin stick in your memory? It’s far and away the finest example of one of the greatest American rarities. It’s a piece of American history. It’s museum-worthy.
How to bid: The 1913 Liberty Head nickel is lot 1096 in Stack’s Bowers Galleries‘s official auction at the American Numismatic Association’s World’s Fair of Money, taking place from August 14 through August 18, 2018.
Text is copyright Sheila Gibson Stoodley. Image is courtesy of Stack’s Bowers.
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