BALTIMORE (CNN/Money) - The biggest mystery of the coin-collecting world has been solved.
On Wednesday at the 2003 "World's Fair of Money," the 112th annual meeting of the American Numismatic Association, the whereabouts of a rare nickel that could be worth more than $2 million were revealed.
The nickel in question is one of five Liberty Head nickels bearing the date 1913. It was last in the possession of George Walton, a North Carolina coin dealer who had it with him when he died in a car crash in 1962.
After the accident, his family took the piece to a dealer who pronounced it a fake. Thereafter, the coin collecting world considered the real nickel "lost."
Meanwhile, the family put the Walton specimen away in a closet, thinking its only value to be sentimental. And for the next four decades, it gathered dust.
A great deal of speculation has surrounded the missing Liberty since 1962. One false rumor claimed it was buried beneath a highway in Reno, Nev. Another, more plausible theory held that it was lost in the car crash, when much of Walton's collection was scattered across a road and fields.
Earlier this year, in an effort to find the missing coin -- or at least garner some attention -- the coin dealing firm Bowers and Merena offered a bounty for it. The company guaranteed to pay at least $1 million, regardless of its condition, to anyone who found it.
The widely publicized offer drew thousands of responses, says Paul Montgomery, the firm's president. Most of them were bogus or misguided.
When the Walton family came forward in July, he said, "We really doubted their coin would be authentic, either."
That view changed after a group of six professional appraisers examined the piece in person. "It was so obvious that it was genuine," says Montgomery, noting that the specimen shares a number of distinctive features with the other four of its kind.
The fact that all the coins could be viewed together at the ANA convention made the appraisal process even easier, he says. With all the pieces in one room, comparing and contrasting was a breeze.
The family members wish to remain anonymous. "It's like holding a winning lottery ticket for them," says Montgomery. "They were stunned."
The family has not yet decided whether it will sell the coin. If they do decide to part with it, a number of dealers at the show said, the coin would be expected to sell at auction for $2 million or more.
A long history
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 magazines 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. King Farouk owned two of them at various times in the 1940s. And Los Angeles Lakers owner Jerry Buss kept one in his collection for about a decade.
Today, three of them are in private hands, one is in the Smithsonian, and one is in the ANA's museum.
At the start of the ANA show, another of the 1913 nickels -- the Eliasberg specimen, which most numismatists consider the best of the lot -- changed hands in a private transaction for approximately $3 million. It was purchased by New Hampshire coin dealer Ed Lee.
The seller, Dwight Manley, acquired the Eliasberg in 2001 for $1.84 million. (He had previously bought and sold a different one in the series.)
Does he have any regrets in parting with it now? "Well, I may have underpriced it," he says.