Million Dollar Nickels, by Paul Montgomery, Mark Borckardt, and Ray Knight, (ISBN 0-974-2371-8-3, published in 2005 by Zyrus Press,) is the story of the famous 1913 Liberty Nickels. The book is an engaging journey through the history of these coins, from the time they were struck in 1913 until the amazing reunion of all five specimens in 2003.
The 1913 Liberty Nickel Story Begins
Sometime in early 1913, (or perhaps even very late in 1912, nobody knows for sure,) one or more employees of the U.S. Mint at Philadelphia struck at least five Liberty Head Nickels dated 1913 without the permission of Mint authorities. 1912 was supposed to have been the final year for Liberty Nickels; the new Buffalo Nickels were due to begin issuance in 1913. Why were the coin dies even created for a nickel that was never meant to be issued? Who struck these coins on U.S. Mint coin presses? How were they smuggled out of the Mint and how did they finally come to light? These are just a few of the intriguing questions that Million Dollar Nickels explores during its first few chapters.
The book begins with a brief jump into the future, the year 2003, when the five known 1913 Liberty Head Nickels were reunited under the most extraordinary of circumstances. This future reunion and the incredible events that lead up to it are the primary impetus for this book having been written. Before the authors take us there, though, we get a fascinating history lesson in the Liberty Head Nickel type itself, plus a comprehensive inquiry into the mysteries surrounding the five 1913 dated specimens.
Along the way to the 2003 reunion, we learn about the journey these historic nickels traveled as they were passed from owner to owner as a set of five coins. When the coins are sold to five separate parties, we follow their paths via brief vignettes of the individual owners. The second half of the book is devoted to the Walton Specimen.
The Walton Specimen of the 1913 Liberty Nickel
The 1913 Liberty Nickels were already known as the most hyped coins in U.S. numismatic history, through the efforts of promoters such as early twentieth century coin dealer B. Max Mehl, who pretty much made a living out of selling little booklets featuring an offer to buy 1913 dated Liberty Nickels for $50 each during the Great Depression. Such offers sparked a national treasure hunt through peoples' pocket change, and is largely responsible for why the 1913 Liberty Nickels have such a mystique about them.
As Million Dollar Nickels moves away from the general story of the 1913 specimens as a whole, we soon discover that the Walton Specimen has a powerful mystique of its own. George Walton, the colorful character who owned the so-called #4 specimen, was a part-time coin dealer who was killed in a head-on car crash while on his way to a coin show where he planned to display his 1913 Liberty Nickel. Although his coins were apparently recovered from the accident, during the disposition of his estate his 1913 Liberty Nickel was declared to be a fake.
If the 1913 Liberty Nickel found in Walton's car was a fake, then where was his genuine specimen? Some said that Walton's coins were scattered all around the roadside at the accident scene. Was the 1913 Nickel lost on the highway? Did someone pocket it? Had Walton hidden it somewhere for safekeeping? The subject of what happened to Walton's genuine 1913 Liberty Nickel was a mystery for more than four decades.
The Famous 1913 Liberty Nickel Reunion
At the American Numismatic Association's (ANA's) annual summer convention in 2003, the five known 1913 Liberty Head Nickels were reunited in one display case again for the first time in 60 years. Although this was certainly a newsworthy event, the real news was that the lost Walton Specimen had finally been found more than 40 years after its last confirmed existence! Million Dollar Nickels takes us along on the many serendipitous events that had to come together like clockwork for this historic reunion to occur, not the least event of which was the discovery of the lost Walton Specimen. Where had the coin been for more than 40 years? How was it finally found again?
The Bottom Line About Million Dollar Nickels
Million Dollar Nickels addresses just about every question one could think of regarding the story of the 1913 Liberty Nickels, and dozens of questions you wouldn't think of (for example, we've always assumed the coins were struck by a man, but is it possible that a woman might have done it? You might be surprised...) The book doesn't always have the answers, but that's only because nobody has them. Where certain conclusions cannot be drawn, the book presents the facts so we can decide for ourselves what to believe. The research in Million Dollar Nickels is impeccable, the citations, references, and bibliography exhaustive. The only reason it got four stars from me instead of five is that sometimes the telling gets pedantic, the minutiae distracting. However, the authors have done an excellent job of taking a scholarly approach to documenting the history of these important coins, while delivering a fast-paced story that keeps the pages turning. If you love coins and the stories behind them, you won't want to miss this one!