Rarities to the Fore

Why is the 1913 Liberty Head nickel so valuable?

Recent news reports and an offer of a $1 million reward have brought a great deal of attention to the U.S. 1913 Liberty Head nickel. The story behind the production of these five coins, and the disappearance of one, is shrouded with crime, mystery and intrigue—making it one of the most notorious numismatic rarities. The U.S. Mint produced the “Liberty Head Type” nickel, designed by Charles E. Barber, from 1883 to 1912. In 1913 the nickel design was changed to James E. Fraser’s Indian Head obverse with a Buffalo reverse. However, sometime near the end of the production run in 1912, five coins bearing the Liberty Head design, but with a date of 1913, were surreptitiously produced. Numismatists became aware of the coins in 1919, after Samuel W. Brown placed an ad in the ANA’s journal, THE NUMISMATIST, seeking to purchase the “non-existent” coins. Mr. Brown attended the 1920 ANA convention in possession of at least one 1913 Liberty Head nickel. By 1924, five genuine specimens had surfaced.

Over the next four decades, the nickels were purchased and sold several times over, individually or as a set in a 2001 auction. The most recent specimen sold brought a record price of $1,840,000 in a 2001 auction.

Way back in July 1858, numismatist Joseph J. Mickley assigned this copper cent, the 1799 his “V.R.” (“Very Rare”) designation, the highest degree of rarity, this being the only cent with such a designation (in the half cent series the 1796 was so listed).

This American classic, the 1856 Flying Eagle cent was struck to the extent of, say, 2,500 or so pieces—few enough that it became a rarity, but a sufficient number that just about anyone could own one, although today it takes the best part of $5,000 to acquire a well-worn specimen. At one time Pittsburgh numismatist John A. Beck, who died in 1925, hoarded 731 specimens! The 1856 cent has a value and interest to collectors of U.S. coinage that goes far beyond the more limited scope of “penny” collectors. Why? The only reasonable answer seems to be: because they always have been valuable. Even in the late 1850s, 1856 cents were worth a dollar or two depending on condition.

Collectors of Flying Eagle cents have several ways to collect these coins. A complete date and variety set is possible and consists of only five issues: 1856, 1857, 1858 Small Letters, 1858 Large Letters and 1858/7. These coins are often collected in conjunction with the Indian Head series. Type collectors generally stick to the 1857 or one of the two 1858 issues. More advanced numismatists often assemble sets of the pattern coinage of this design. Proofs are extremely rare, except in the case of the 1856, and probably less than a total of 100 proofs exist of the three issues from 1857 and 1858.

Grading Flying Eagles can be somewhat tricky due to the above-mentioned weakness of strike encountered on many examples. The points of the design to show wear first are the eagle’s breast and wingtips on the obverse and the bow on the reverse. With mint state coins that are weakly struck on the head or tail of the eagle or on the reverse wreath, it is imperative that mint luster be present on all areas of the design.

Flying Eagle cents have been extensively counterfeited. Fakes have been made by altering digits in the date, false dies have been produced to strike phonies and spark erosion dies have been used. When in doubt or when purchasing a high priced Flying Eagle cent, it is always best to have the coin’s authenticity expertly verified.

It was Longacre’s inability to engrave dies properly that led to the early demise of the series. A new design was needed where die opposition would not be a problem as it had been between the eagle on the obverse and the wreath on the reverse. It was this need that led Longacre to redesign the small cent for 1859, replacing the flying eagle motif with an Indian head. The original small cent design, however, gave collectors of 19th century U.S. coins a short, yet challenging series that continues to intrigue numismatists more than a century later.

The 1907 (MCMVII) $20 Gold Saint Gaudens High Relief is another “popular rarity,” one of which 11,250 were struck and of which a few thousand exist today. Many consider this to be the most beautiful coin ever struck for general circulation. The designer of this coin also created the sculpture of Diana, which is shown on the cover of the latest issue of Antiques magazine.

What is the Most Beautiful U.S. Coin Ever Made?

Whenever that question arises, one of the first and most frequent answers is sure to be the Saint-Gaudens double eagle, or twenty-dollar gold piece. And those who know the subject well are almost certain to specify the “Saint” with high relief. It’s been hailed as a numismatic treasure, a miniature sculpture created in solid gold. In many ways, the high relief Saints are works of art and not just coins. No other coin in American history has been designed with these unique high relief features. For this reason alone, the 1907 dated $20 Saint Gaudens are clearly the most fascinating and beautiful creations ever struck by the U.S. Mint.

This coin, the 1896-O Morgan silver dollar is common in well-worn grades and catalogues reasonably in VF in the latest edition of the Guide Book. However, in choice or gem Mint State it is worth thousands of dollars. In fact, in MS-63 it catalogues for $5,700, which means that you can buy 475 VF examples for the cost of a single MS-63! Anyway, it is a rarity in MS-63.

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