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The $1 million nickel
The search is on for a rare, old nickel. No one cares that it's a fake.
May 28, 2003: 11:13 AM EDT
By Gordon T. Anderson, CNN/Money Contributing Writer

NEW YORK (CNN/Money) - Check your loose change carefully: There's a nickel out there that may be worth $1 million.

The coin in question is a Liberty Head nickel bearing the date 1913, and it's been missing since the early 1960s. Now, coin dealers at Bowers and Merena Galleries of Wolfeboro, N.H., are offering a $1 million bounty to anyone who turns it in.

Between 1883 and 1912, the U.S. nickel was the Liberty Head, which was replaced in 1913 by the Indian/Buffalo piece. The 1913 Liberty Head, in other words, was never official currency.

In fact, it was minted sometime between 1913 and 1920 by a savvy, if unscrupulous, U.S. Mint employee, who created the coin explicitly to trigger a collector's market. Only five such coins were ever produced.

"His whole purpose was to create a market for a rare coin," says Mark Borckardt, vice president of Bowers and Merena.

The shady numismatist took out ads in mazazines for coin collectors, according to Ed Rochette, executive vice president emeritus of the American Numismatic Association. (The dealer was even a member of the ANA, Rochette notes.) Eventually, all five coins were sold.

For a number of years, the Liberties were held in private collections, bought and sold by collectors. Today, two of them are in private hands, one is in the Smithsonian, and one is in the ANA's museum. The most recent trade took place in 2001, when one sold for $1.9 million.

The whereabouts of the fifth nickel, however, are a mystery. In the early 1960s, it vanished.

Nobody knows for sure what happened, but most collectors believe it was lost when the North Carolina dealer holding it died in a car crash in 1962. Police on the scene didn't recover it, nor was it found in a number of subsequent accident-site searches.

"An agent for the coin's owner was carrying it to or from a collector's convention when the car crashed," says Borckardt. "We don't know what happened next." Stories conflict, but the actual owner of the coin may not even have been aware of its loss.

In any event, the $1 million Bowers and Merena is offering is real. "It's sort of a gimmick," Borckardt acknowledges. "We doubt that we're going to find it, but we'll buy it if it turns up."

Also doubtful is the ANA's Rochette, whose many publications include the "Other Side of the Coin" (Jende-Hagan, 1985). "Will it turn up?" he wonders. "I don't know."

Even so, an awful lot of people are trying. Since announcing the reward, Bowers and Merena has been deluged with inquiries from people claiming to have the missing coin. "There are a lot of copies out there," Borckardt said.

Still, for a million bucks it may be worth checking through your change drawer. To steal a phrase from New York Lotto: Hey, you never know.  Top of page

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