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Image of United States, 5 Cents, 1913
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Materials: Copper-nickel
Measurement: Dia. 21.2 mm, Wt. 5.061 g
Source: H.R. Norweb, ex Farouk sale

United States, 5 Cents, 1913

Some rarities are accidental, like the 1927 Denver double eagle. Others are contrived, beginning their lives as scams. The 1913 Liberty head five-cent piece, or nickel, falls into this category. Were it not for that date, even an advanced collector would hardly give it a second thought. But the date is different, and a very clever set of circumstances ensured that the coins bearing it became memorable, twentieth-century legends.

The first Liberty head nickels were struck in 1883, their designer the prolific if uninspired Charles E. Barber. Millions were made over the next three decades. The design was to be retired at the end of 1912, and that is when things began to become interesting. Despite orders to the contrary, five new Liberty head nickels were struck clandestinely, presumably at the beginning of 1913.

Spirited out of the Mint, they came into the possession of one Samuel W. Brown, of North Tonawanda, New York. He eventually became the town’s mayor, but earlier had served as Storekeeper of the Mint. At the end of 1919, he placed an advertisement in the Numismatist, offering to pay $500 each for 1913 Liberty head nickels. Later he raised the offer to $600.

He already had all the coins, so what was he up to? He was making a legend, preparatory to making a profit! He displayed the coins at the following ANA convention (August 1920), finally selling the pieces to a Philadelphia dealer a few years later.

At this point, San Antonio coin dealer B. Max Mehl entered the picture, also making offers to buy any 1913 Liberty nickels. That did it: everyone from ten-year-old boys to sophisticated collectors began checking their change, hoping to come across another 1913. No one ever did, but the coin’s legendary status was assured.
Related Events
1907: The stock market crashes and depositors run on banks in panic of 1907.
1908: Ford introduces its Model T car.
1912: The British liner Titanic sinks off Newfoundland, killing around 1500.
1913: The U.S. creates the Federal Reserve, re-establishing a national bank for the first time since 1837.
1917: The United States enters World War I.
Unexpected Legends The following objects are in this section.
United States, 20 Dollars, 1927United States, 1 Dollar, 1804 (Class Three)
United States, 1 Cent, 1974 (Aluminum)United States, 5 Cents, 1913
United States, 1 Dollar, 1804 (Class One) 
United States, 1 Dollar, 1804 (Class Two) 
Smithsonian National Museum of American History, Behring Center Learning Resources Flash Exhibition
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