US Coins

Monday Morning Brief for Oct. 31, 2022: When a 'big three' sells

The former George O. Walton Proof 1913 Liberty Head 5-cent coin is graded and encapsulated Proof 63 by PCGS and stickered by CAC.

Images courtesy of Professional Coin Grading Service.

For as long as I have been involved in coins (almost 60 years), the “big three” of U.S. coins have been the 1804 Draped Bust dollar, the 1894-S Barber dime, and the 1913 Liberty Head 5-cent coin.

They are not the rarest U.S. coins; coins like the 1870-S Seated Liberty half dime and 1870-S Indian Head $3 coin, each unique, are rarer. Nor are they the most valuable; coins like the “first” 1794 Flowing Hair dollar and the 1933 Saint-Gaudens double eagle have sold for more money. And yet the sale of an example of one of the holy trio always draws collector attention. GreatCollections’ recent sale of the Walton specimen of 1913 Liberty Head 5-cent coin is evidence of the continuing interest in the three rarities.

Part of the reason the three coins draw so much attention is the myths and stories that have arisen about each coin.

Until the early 1960s, numismatists could only speculate about the origin of the “Original” 1804 dollars and the later pieces. Then the King of Siam set surfaced and the hobby learned that the “Original” coins were produced about 1834 for use in sets of coins being used as diplomatic gifts.

Numismatists also speculated about the original of the 1894-S Barber dimes, with some theorizing that they were struck unofficially. It was not until relatively recently that Coin World contributors Nancy Oliver and Richard Kelly proved that the 24 dimes were struck to coin a small amount of remaining silver from melted older designs.

The definitive origin of the   1913 Liberty Head 5-cent coin remains uncertain, though we are pretty sure how they came to be. Until the publication of the December 1919 issue of The Numismatist, there had zero evidence that such a coin might exist. An advertisement was purchased in that issue by a man called Samuel Brown who asked that anyone with knowledge of the coins contact him. In August 1920, he attended the American Numismatic Association convention with five of the coins in hand. It was later determined that Brown formerly worked at the Philadelphia Mint; we can guess how he got the coins, and it was illegitimately, probably.

Most of us will never own one of these three coins. That does not stop us from writing and reading about them.
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