These 110-Year-Old Nickels Are Worth Millions


In 1913, the U.S. Mint introduced the famous Indian Head nickel. Affectionately called the Buffalo nickel, its design was part of an attempt to beautify American coinage. Unfortunately, it was hard to mint and prone to wear — problems with indistinct striking plagued it from the beginning. 

When the coin’s mandatory 25-year run ended in 1938, the mint replaced the Buffalo with the Jefferson nickel.

Thousands of poorly struck mistake copies entered circulation along the way, making the Indian Head a favorite coin among American collectors. 

But the five-cent piece that the Buffalo nickel replaced has an equally important place in the history of coinage and collectibles — and five incredibly rare copies are the rock stars of the numismatic world.

Also learn about a dime worth up to $2,000.

The Incredible True Story of the Rogue Liberty Head Nickels

Charles Barber, the U.S. Mint’s chief engraver in the late 19th century, designed the Liberty Head nickel. More than half a billion of them entered circulation between the Liberty Head’s debut in 1883 and 1912, the final year before the Indian Head became America’s standard five-cent coin.

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But in 1913, five very special Liberty Heads that were never supposed to exist joined the 500 million that came before. 

The year after its production run officially ended, Samuel W. Brown, an official of the U.S. Mint, secretly and illegally struck five 1913 Liberty Head nickels. According to Robb Report, Brown kept his five five-cent coins a secret for five years. 

His chosen timeline wasn’t in honor of the nickel’s numerics — that was the statute of limitations on prosecuting him for his crime.

The Contraband Coins Become the Aspiration of Elite Collectors

Brown turned out to be as savvy at marketing as he was at minting. 

According to the American Numismatic Association, the miscreant minter drummed up interest in his collection of contraband coins by placing ads in The Numismatist magazine, which offered to pay $500 — later $600 — to get his hands on one. 

Soon after, Brown displayed all five 1913 Liberty Head nickels at the 1920 ANA National Convention in Detroit to raise their profile even more. 

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His ploy worked. 

In 1924, he sold all five to Col. E.H.R. Green, who held them until his death in 1936. The quintet was separated for the first time when two coin dealers bought them at the colonel’s estate sale. They went on to become some of the most coveted collectibles in the world. 

At one point, King Farouk of Egypt owned one. Another joined the $45 million collection of Louis Eliasberg.

A Five-Cent Piece Worth $4.2 Million

Today, two of the original five 1913 Liberty Head nickels are in museums. One is in the Smithsonian National Numismatic Collection. The other is in the ANA Money Museum in Colorado. 

The most famous of the three in private collections is known as the Walton nickel, named after a previous owner. The others are called McDermott, Eliasberg, Norweb and Olsen.

According to Numismatic News, the Walton nickel was recovered from a deadly automobile accident in 1962, then tucked away in an heir’s closet until it was discovered more than 40 years later, in 2003.

In 2022, California-based auction house GreatCollections purchased the Walton nickel from a Florida family for an incredible $4.2 million. Just one year earlier in 2021, GreatCollections acquired the Eliasberg nickel — the finest graded of the five — as part of a $13.4 million three-coin transaction.

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The back-to-back pick-ups give the auction house sole ownership of two-fifths of the country’s most legendary set of five-cent pieces.

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About the Author

Andrew Lisa has been writing professionally since 2001. An award-winning writer, Andrew was formerly one of the youngest nationally distributed columnists for the largest newspaper syndicate in the country, the Gannett News Service. He worked as the business section editor for amNewYork, the most widely distributed newspaper in Manhattan, and worked as a copy editor for, a financial publication in the heart of Wall Street's investment community in New York City.
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