Gerald Tebben

Five Facts

Gerald Tebben

Gerald Tebben, a Coin World columnist for more than 30 years, also contributes to Coin World’s Coin Values and edits the Central States Numismatic Society’s journal, The Centinel. He collects coins that tell stories.

Coin World’s bloggers are not edited by Coin World’s editorial staff and blog posts reflect the views of the individual author.

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1/20 of a dollar: The nickel that doesn’t officially exist

Millions of Americans were enticed into buying B. Max Mehl’s $1-a-copy Star Rare Coin Encyclopedia during the Great Depression by ads Mehl plastered nationwide offering to pay $50 (nearly $1,000 in today’s money) for a 1913 Liberty Head 5-cent piece.

The book, which was issued through the 1950s, ostensibly listed the prices the Texas coin dealer would pay for rare coins, but mostly it was a way for Mehl to make money by selling books. The $1 price in 1932, for example, is equal to almost $18 today.

Mehl never had to pay off on his advertising because only five 1913 Liberty Head 5-cent pieces were minted, and Mehl knew where they all were.

The coin doesn’t official exist. Mint records show coinage of Liberty Head 5-cent pieces ceased at Philadelphia on Dec. 12, 1912.  Mint Director George H. Roberts advised Philadelphia Mint Supt. John H. Landis, “Do nothing about the 5 cent coinage for 1913 until the new (Indian Head) designs are ready for use.” The first Indian Head 5-cent pieces were struck Feb. 21, 1913.

Nonetheless five 1913 Liberty Head 5-cent pieces were clandestinely produced, likely at the request of mint storekeeper Samuel W. Brown. Brown kept quiet about his coins until December 1919 when he placed an ad in The Numismatist offering to pay $500 ($12,250 in today’s money) for one.

The next year he showed up at the American Numismatic Association convention with one and offered to pay $600 apiece for any more. He later apparently sold or consigned his five coins to Philadelphia coin dealer August Wagner.

In 1924 Wagner placed an ad in The Numismatist offering the five for sale. The price, not stated in the ad, was a reported $2,000 ($28,000 in today’s money. The nation experienced terrible inflation during World War I, causing the value of money to decrease by more than 50 percent).

Legendary collector Col. E.H.R. Green ended up with them in the mid-1920s. After Green’s death in 1936, the coins once again entered the numismatic marketplace and were widely dispersed.

Today, the rare coin sells for north of $3 million on the rare occasion that one is offered at auction.

  Next: Speculation gone mad

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