Mysterious, 'Sexy' Nickel Sells for $3.17 Million

It's a mysterious nickel that was estimated to bring $2.5 million at auction. Why so much for a five-cent coin? "This is the sexiest coin of all," said Gregory Rohan, president of Heritage Auctions. The coin, known as the Walton nickel, surpassed estimates and sold for $3.17 million in early April.

Before you go thumbing through your pocket change, you should know this nickel is both old and rare, one of five that were struck at the U.S. Mint in Philadelphia in 1913.

That year a buffalo image was to replace the Liberty head design on the front side of the U.S. nickel. Five coins were inadvertently struck with the old image. "So this coin is not supposed to exist. It is supposed to have the buffalo design," explained Rohan.

The existence of the coin and its four mates was not discovered until 1920, by which time the five 1913 Liberty head nickels had fallen into the hands of different owners. But for many years, the Walton nickel, named after one of its owners, coin collector George Walton, went missing.

"The other four have been in collections known to people in coin-collecting circles. But this coin just vanished," Rohan said.

The last time the Walton nickel was up for sale was 1944, when Walton bought it for $3750. Eighteen years later, Walton was killed in a car accident while on his way to a coin show. Though Walton's collection was recovered, his family was told that the 1913 Liberty nickel he had with him that day was a fake.

Rohan has a theory about why the coin was deemed to be phony. "A lot of people have tried to alter the date of 1912 nickels to look like 1913's. I think the coin shop they brought it to was just so used to seeing fakes come that they just summarily dismissed it as being fake. Big mistake."

As the coin world wondered what happened to the fifth 1913 Liberty nickel, Walton's family held on to it. "They put a little note on it: "Fake, no value," and put it in the closet," said Rohan.

A decade ago, as a promotion for a display of the other four nickels in the set, a $1 million reward was offered for anyone who brought in the missing coin. Walton's family decided to bring their nickel in to see if it might be real after all. Indeed it was.

Now the family has decided to put the coin up for auction. "It's been in their family for 70 years. They decided that the hundredth anniversary of the coin was the right time to sell it and for another collector to have it," Rohan said.

The coin sold for over $3 million. Part of the value of the coin, its unique history. Rohan said, "The thing that really makes this coin the sexiest coins we've ever handled is the story around it."