On the rainy night of March 9, 1962, a head-on car crash scattered a quarter-million dollars’ worth of coins across a North Carolina highway, and the life story of a solitary collector named George O. Walton came to an end. But another story began — one of expert blunders, abiding family loyalty and long-awaited redemption.
The object connecting the two stories lay on the wet asphalt that night in a custom holder that Walton had made for it: It was a 1913 Liberty head nickel, a coin that was never meant to be, with its own enduring tale as one of America’s greatest rarities.
The year after Walton died, his heirs were given shocking news: experts in New York had decreed the nickel a worthless fake. Walton’s sister put it away in her closet, but the family never lost faith in their Uncle George’s legacy.
On April 25, at an auction in Chicago, that loyalty is expected to be rewarded. Now recognized as authentic, Walton’s nickel is expected to fetch $2 million to $5 million.
Walton’s nephew, Ryan Givens, of Roanoke, Va., described his uncle as a bluntly forthright Southerner who was largely self-educated.
"He was not a bragger, but he enjoyed talking to people about his coins. He liked matching wits with others and trading," said Givens, who last saw his uncle at a family gathering a few weeks before the car crash. Though intensely private, Walton was "good at finding things," learned quickly from mistakes and enjoyed the camaraderie of his fellow collectors.
Walton had an odd knack for collecting coins. His grandfather had encouraged him to collect the nickels he earned tending horses. As a teenager, Walton bet a group of schoolmates a coonskin against their gold dollar that he could beat them in wrestling. He won, and his appetite for gold was whetted.
Later on, his prized possessions included a set of early gold coins minted in the Carolinas by the Bechtlers, a family of 19th century metallurgists.
According to Givens, his uncle was also an astute trader. In the mid-1940s, he swapped another collector $3,750 worth of collectible gold coins for the 1913 Liberty head nickel, which was already legendary.
Walton was never a rich man, but his work as an estate appraiser often allowed him to get first crack at collectibles. His collecting passion extended to stamps, books, jewelry, Civil War memorabilia and guns. He accumulated so many vintage firearms that he had to buy another house just to store them, Givens said, and would often use his collections as collateral for bank loans to acquire more.
Though he owned several houses, Walton lacked a fixed abode. "Nobody knew where he was at any given time," Givens said.
Instead, Walton kept his coins in safe deposit boxes, lived mostly in hotels, and traveled about in his 1956 Ford station wagon, visiting favorite dealers and showing up at coin exhibits and weekend bourses. He was on his way to a collector event in Wilson, N.C., to show his famous nickel on the night he died.
The nickel’s story began in 1912. That year, United States five-cent pieces with a Roman numeral V and a woman’s head representing Liberty (she gave the coin its name) went out of production. In early 1913, that coin was replaced by a new design with an American Indian on the obverse, or front, and a buffalo on the reverse.
Controversy began in 1920, when Samuel Brown, a coin dealer, stepped forward with an anomaly: five nickels of the old V design, yet clearly dated 1913. Though he was evasive about their provenance, Brown sold all five nickels and they wound up together in the hands of Col. Edward H.R. Green, a famous collector with an insatiable appetite for all things unusual.
After Green died, a young collector named Eric P. Newman teamed up with a dealer in 1941 to buy many of Green’s coins, including the five 1913 Liberty head nickels. In an email, Newman said that later that same year, he resold the coin that would eventually come into Walton’s collection.
Besides Walton’s heirs, "I believe that I am the only survivor of its various owners," wrote Newman, now 101. "I am so lucky to have lived so long."
It was Newman’s research that led to the discovery that Brown had been a mint employee in 1913, and might have illicitly produced the instant rarities himself. Mint records show no such coin was ever officially made.
Two of the five nickels are now in museums, leaving only Walton’s and two others in the hands of collectors.
After Walton died, his coins were auctioned in New York for $850,000 — a record sum for a coin collection in 1963.
"He had a major collection with great rarities," said Douglas Mudd, curator of the American Numismatic Association’s Money Museum in Colorado Springs.
But in a stunning twist, the auction house rejected Walton’s nickel and sent it back to the family marked "no value."
"For years, everybody scoffed at Walton because his nickel was called a fake," said Mark Borckardt, a senior numismatic cataloger with Heritage Auctions in Dallas, which is selling the coin now. "They said he didn’t know what he was doing."
Walton’s sister Melva, the mother of Givens, kept the nickel. "She thought a lot of Uncle George," Givens said. "And 1913 was the year of her birth."
After his mother died in 1992, Givens put the nickel in his bedside table. Meanwhile, numismatists wondered where the fifth nickel had gone.
Then in 2003, to promote a Baltimore coin event where the remaining four nickels would be shown together for the first time in 60 years, a group of coin mavens offered a reward for the missing one: $10,000 just to see it, $1 million if it were authenticated and sold on the spot.
"Nobody had thought to call the Walton heirs," said David Hall, one of those involved. Hall is a founder of Professional Coin Grading Service, which recently issued a certificate of authenticity for the coin, labeling it Proof-63, close to the top of the numismatic scale of 1-70.
But a newspaper reporter in Roanoke had thought to do some sleuthing. Givens brought the coin to the Baltimore event, where a group of top coin experts examined the nickel and reached a unanimous verdict.
"The second I saw it, I knew it was real," Hall said.
If the authenticity of Walton’s nickel was so clear in 2003, how could experts 40 years earlier have been so wrong?
"Any one of us would have had the same opinion in 1963," Borckardt said. A half-century ago, he said, numismatic know-how "was in its infancy." And those who discredited the nickel then might have never seen another 1913 Liberty head.
Since its rehabilitation, the Walton nickel has been exhibited at the Money Museum and around the country. Givens said he enjoyed seeing people talk about the coin, and does not look forward to selling it.
"I dread it," he said. "But I’m told it’s a good time to sell."
He has considered using the proceeds to set up something in his uncle’s memory to benefit the hobby.
Borckardt, who has grown friendly with Givens and his siblings, summed up. "The rediscovery and authentication of the nickel validated the life of George Walton," he said, "and that to them was more important than the money."