US Coins

Highest-graded 1913 Liberty 5-cent coin in ANA auction

The American Numismatic Association World‘s Fair of Money in Philadelphia is months away, but the auctions already have a star. 

Stack’s Bowers Galleries announced on April 25 that it would be offering the finest of five known 1913 Liberty Head 5-cent coins, graded Proof 66 by Professional Coin Grading Service, at its August 15 Rarities Night auction. 

The rarity was consigned by the family of Dr. William Morton-Smith. As Stack’s Bowers shared, the doctor’s collecting was inspired by an antique Colonial desk that he inherited. “As he was combing through the desk discovering its many features, he came across a compartment that housed a coin collection consisting of colonial coins, half cents, large cents, a complete set of Proof Liberty Head nickels and much more. These had once belonged to his great grandfather. Bill was amazed that the coins had been in the desk all this time,” and he spent decades adding legendary rarities to the family collection that started generations ago. 

The 1913 Liberty Head 5-cent coin is perhaps the most famous 20th century U.S. coin, since just five were struck, perhaps clandestinely, at the Philadelphia Mint. The first reference to the coins is a small advertisement in the December 1919 issue of The Numismatist from Philadelphia Mint employee Samuel W. Brown seeking to purchase examples. It remains unclear how or when the 1913 Liberty 5-cent coins were made since they made their first public appearance in 1920, owned by Brown, who (we assume) knew that there were just five examples in existence and that his ad would not yield any new coins. 

The five were purchased by Col. E.H.R. Green around 1925 from dealer Wayte Raymond, and in December 1941, Burdette G. Johnson and Eric P. Newman purchased all five. Newman selected the subject coin as the one he kept for his personal collection, and in 1948 he sold it to dealer Abe Kosoff, who quickly sold it to Baltimore collector Louis Eliasberg Sr.

Chaos and Order — Coinage during World War ICoinage during World War I: Propaganda and influence were a big part of World War I, and medals and coins were a prime vehicle to convey those messages. Steve Roach covers the topic in our May 7 cover feature.

Kosoff offered it to Eliasberg for $2,350, writing, “I have seen the coin and believe it to be perhaps the best of the 5 known specimens. In any event, if you would like to have it, it could be forthcoming within a week after we receive your reply.” It next sold to Kansas City dealer Jay Parrino for $1,485,000 at Bowers and Merena’s May 1996 offering of the Eliasberg Collection. This price established this example as the first U.S. coin to sell for over $1 million at auction. It would cross the auction block five years later, now graded Proof 66 by Numismatic Guaranty Corp., at a March 2001 Superior auction for $1,840,000, selling to Dwight Manley. 

It was then crossed to a PCGS Proof 66 holder and traded hands privately in May 2004 to dealer Ed Lee for $3 million, and sold a year later to Legend Numismatics for $4,150,000 in another private transaction. John Albanese, who brokered the transaction recalled how easy it was, “With just a handshake, we had a deal to sell the coin for $4.15 million. If you sell a piece of property for $4 million you’ll probably have a contract that runs dozens of pages. But in numismatics you can have complete assurance with simply a handshake.”

Connect with Coin World:  

Sign up for our free eNewsletter
Like us on Facebook  
Follow us on Twitter

Legend offered the coin at a Jan. 2, 2007, Stack’s auction in Orlando prior to the Florida United Numismatists convention, but the coin failed to sell at its opening bid of $4.5 million. At the time Stack’s president (and current Stack’s Bowers executive vice president) Chris Karstedt said, “We still stand by our belief that this coin is a great store of value and that if a potential buyer was not in the auction now, it will still trade at a record price.” 

It would trade in April 2007 for $5 million to a private Southern California collector — identified now as Dr. Morton-Smith — then described as a dedicated collector of historic U.S. coins. 

Of the five known examples, just three are collectible. One resides in the National Numismatic Collection at the Smithsonian Institution and another is in the collection of the American Numismatic Association. A PCGS Proof 63 example known as the Walton Specimen sold at an April 2013 Heritage auction for $3,172,500 and the Olsen-Hydeman example, graded NGC Proof 64 with a green Certified Acceptance Corp. sticker, realized $3,290,000 at Heritage’s January 2014 FUN auction. 

Stack’s Bowers has sold other treasures from the Morton-Smith family, including a Class III 1804 Draped Bust silver dollar graded Proof 55 by NGC that brought $1,880,000 at its August 2014 ANA auction and a PCGS Mint State 64 1794 Flowing Hair dollar with a green CAC sticker that realized $2,820,000 at Stack’s Bowers’ 2017 ANA sale. 

The ANA World’s Fair of Money is set for Aug. 14 to 18 at the Philadelphia Convention Center with Heritage and Stack’s Bowers sharing duties as official auctioneers. 

Community Comments