This month’s 2023 ANA convention marks the 20th anniversary of the rediscovery of the missing Walton 1913 Liberty nickel. I was asked to be part of the team that authenticated the coin for the Walton heirs who had come forward with the coin. Ten years later, in 2013, my company purchased the coin at auction. My purchase of the 1913 Liberty nickel was one of the most exciting experiences of my numismatic career. The following is a detailed account of what happened that night.
Over the years, when asked about the most expensive coin I have ever sold, my mind quickly races with memories of April 25, 2013.
Our team was attending the Central States Convention in Rosemont, Illinois, and the show had just concluded for the day. An important auction was being held that night at the convention, with the star lot being one of the legendary 1913 Liberty nickels. Only five examples are known of this classic rarity, and for decades it has been one of the most coveted United States coins. The example being offered that night had been missing since the 1960s, until its rediscovery in 2003. The Walton family decided to part with the coin, and a room of about 300 people were waiting anxiously for it to cross the auction block.
I was on the way to dinner with my son Ben when my cell phone rang. One of my closest dealer friends, Larry Lee, was calling back about an inquiry I had made days earlier. Larry had several important retail clients who I thought might be interested in owning a 1913 Liberty nickel. In actuality, Larry had decided he wanted to own the “holy grail” of numismatics himself. Larry agreed to split the coin with me, with him owning the majority interest.
Larry had called less than 30 minutes before the coin was slated for sale. After about a five-minute discussion about the price, I had my secret bid limit, and we detoured to the ballroom for the auction. My son was unaware of the phone conversation and thought we were just going to observe the auction before heading to dinner. By this time my pulse was racing, but on the surface I remained calm, trying to blend in with the giant crowd who had come to watch the fireworks.
After what seemed like an eternity, the lot finally came up for sale. The auctioneer gave a brief history of the legendary 1913 Liberty nickel to warm up the crowd and build anticipation. Bidding started at about $1 million, and several bidder paddles shot up in the air. I decided to wait until a few dropped out before placing a bid.
The coin surpassed $2 million and finally only one bidder remained. I then placed my first bid. After a great deal of coaxing, the competing bidder finally raised his bidder paddle. My next bid would be my last, as we had reached the prearranged bidding limit that Larry and I had decided on together. When I ultimately raised my hand, offering $2.7 million, the crowd murmured with excitement. With the buyer’s premium of 17.5%, the final purchase price was $3,172,500 USD.
The auctioneer seemed to take forever trying to elicit another bid from my lone competitor. Finally, after the traditional “going once, going twice,” he loudly proclaimed the coin sold for $2.7 million. The room erupted in applause, and everyone angled to see who the winning bidder was. The name Jeff Garrett quickly shot around the room. This moment was undoubtedly the most exciting of my entire 40-plus-year career as a professional numismatist. I later told friends that buying the 1913 Liberty nickel was my numismatic Mount Everest.
Meanwhile, my son sat in shock next to me, unaware of what my prior phone conversation had been about. We both knew dinner would be delayed but it was now going to be a glorious celebration.
Honestly, I was unprepared for what happened next.
After being congratulated by my close friends and clients who attended the sale, I was immediately besieged by local press and reporters from the numismatic community. There had been tons of presale press about this coin and the media was excited to report on its sale.
Although there are five examples known of the 1913 Liberty nickel, this coin stood out for its mysterious past. The coin had been purchased by George Walton sometime in the 1940s. Walton was an important but somewhat eccentric collector from North Carolina. He had assembled a huge collection of coins, not to mention guns and other various collectibles. In 1962, while driving to a coin show, Walton was tragically killed in a car accident. It was reported that parts of his collection were scattered across the road before being recovered.
In 1963, the New York coin firm Stack’s offered his collection for sale. The 1913 Liberty nickel, which Walton had proudly shared with anyone he encountered at coin shows, was not included in the catalogue. The sale of his collection was one of the highest-grossing auction sales of the 1960s, even without the 1913 Liberty nickel.
After much inquiry, the Walton 1913 Liberty nickel was declared lost. Many wondered if the coin had been lost or stolen from the scene of the car accident. Others speculated that Walton had secretly sold the genuine coin to the Reynolds family of North Carolina tobacco fame, and had been showing off a replica of the coin. This latter theory led to a possible explanation of its disappearance. Regardless of what had transpired, the coin remained missing to the numismatic community for the next 40 years.
Fast forward to 2003. As a publicity stunt, the rare coin firm Bowers and Merena offered $10,000 to anyone who could produce the coin for authentication. The offer was met with nationwide media attention and thousands of calls claiming to own the missing coin. All of the claims were quickly dismissed as counterfeits until a call came in from one of the Walton heirs. They claimed to have the coin everyone thought was one of the fake 1913 Liberty Nickels that George Walton was known to have been carrying around in his pocket. The family wanted someone to look at the coin to be sure.
After several calls and an examination of the coin, the experts at Bowers and Merena quickly realized the coin the family had been told 50 years earlier was an altered-date fake, might possibly be the real thing. They had the family bring the coin to the 2003 World’s Fair of Money in Baltimore, Maryland, to be examined by a team of world-class experts at the show.
I was approached about 10 p.m. on the first night of the show asking if I would help authenticate the missing nickel. We all met secretly to examine the coin and deliberate its merits as being fake or genuine. The team quickly recognized the coin was genuine and told the family they owned a million-dollar-plus coin! Little did I know then that a decade later the coin would once again become part of my numismatic journey.
The next day, the numismatic press went wild with excitement about the discovery of the previously missing 1913 Liberty nickel, and it became the featured attraction of the 2003 World’s Fair. The Walton heirs glowed with pride and were genuinely shocked by their good fortune. They soon decided to lend the coin to the American Numismatic Association for exhibit at their headquarters and to be displayed at shows around the country. The coin remained with the ANA for the next 10 years until the Walton family decided to part with their family heirloom.
After numerous interviews outside the auction room, I decided to call my wife to share the exciting news. It was a bit awkward telling your spouse you had just bought a rare coin for over $3 million. She kidded me about previous conversations a few weeks earlier about our family budget. Luckily, she was supportive as usual, but was unprepared herself for the media attention that was to follow. The next day, the local press had sent two or three news trucks to my office wanting an interview. So much for our usual low-key approach to business.
One of the most amusing parts of the story happened that weekend. The comedy TV show Saturday Night Live featured the sale of the coin on its “Weekend Update” segment. The host quipped, “this week someone paid over $3 million for a coin; now he has a nickel for every time he [made] a mistake.” My purchase of the 1913 Liberty nickel had certainly provided me with my 15 minutes of fame.
It is a bit sad that now most rare coin auctions are conducted online. This includes even the most important collections. The days of a packed room watching in anticipation for the sale of a major rarity are a thing of the past.
I have bought and sold hundreds of millions of dollars of rare coins over the decades, but no deal or single coin has ever provided the excitement and memories that this one transaction provided. I will always be grateful to my late friend Larry Lee for giving me the opportunity to reach my own Mount Everest of numismatics.